News 18 Investigates: The Safety of the Skies Part 1

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – More flights in the next few years may be delayed or canceled because of a possible shortage. Not because of a shortage of pilots or airplanes, but because of a shortage of air traffic controllers.

The Federal Aviation Administration needs to hire more than 6,000 controllers over the next five years to keep pace with those approaching mandatory retirement. It’s a need that has become even more pressing after nearly a yearlong hiring freeze ended earlier this year. But when the freeze was over, some Purdue students have felt frozen out of their dream job thanks to a new process for hiring.

Another flight takes off from the Purdue airport Monday. But while a pilot is at the controls, everything they do is directed by the eyes and voice of the tower nearby.

There are just over 15,000 air traffic controllers in all of the U.S. Joining their ranks is a goal for about 30 Purdue graduates every year.

There’s no guarantee. But getting good grades and doing well on a difficult aptitude test usually equals a job offer from the FAA within two years, just like “Pete” — a 2012 graduate of the Purdue Aviation program.

“I knew I was going to have to fight for it. I knew I was going to have to apply for it just like anybody else,” said Pete.

Pete is sharing his story as long as we don’t share his real name.

When the federal government ended a hiring freeze this year, they added a new step called a biographical assessment. While “Pete” scored a 96 out of 100 on his aptitude test after graduating, he didn’t pass the new assessment.

“A year and a half ago, I was told I was well-qualified and on my way to be hired, but recently I was told I wasn’t eligible to apply,” explains Pete.

He is not alone.

Of 28,000 applicants, only about 2,200 passed the biographical assessment. It’s a figure of less than eight percent.

Some questions seem a bit random, how many sports one played in high school or what age an applicant first earned money at a job.

“I don’t think you can determine who can be a great air traffic controller based on when you first started working,” said Pete.

The assessment was created as part of an effort to make a more diverse workforce after an FAA study last year found that several parts of the hiring process discriminated against various groups.

According to the FAA, the current workforce is more than large enough to handle the current level of air traffic, which has fallen since the year 2000. However, current air traffic controller “Tom” doesn’t believe it.

“We do not have enough people in the pipeline right now to fill the void that’s going to take place in the next five years. The controller workforce is going to be overloaded and overworked. They just don’t have enough people,” said Tom.

Tom also only agreed to speak to News 18 if his identity was kept anonymous.

Tom said the staffing at his airport has gone down from 52 to 38 in three years. He’s not had a new trainee at the facility in more than two years.

“Do the math. They can say whatever they want to say, and they can make the numbers look the way they want them to look. But the bottom line is, we’re on the front lines. We see it. We know what’s happening,” said Tom.

So, does the hiring policy changes mean the skies will be less safe to fly in the future?

In Part 2 on News 18 at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Tuesday, we’ll tell you what the experts believe could be the result as well as what the FAA response was when we asked about their hiring changes.

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