News 18 Investigates: The Safety of the Skies Part 2

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, your chances of dying in a plane crash are less than one in two million. But will it become more risky now that the Federal Aviation Administration has changed how it hires air traffic controllers?

In Part 1 Monday night, News 18 spoke with two anonymous sources, a recent Purdue graduate and an air traffic controller who said high quality applicants are not being advanced after a newly instituted biographical assessment.

In Part 2, News 18 examines what they and others believe could happen if the problem isn’t corrected.

“You have to be on your ‘A’ game 100 percent of the time. You can never let your guard down,” said “Tom”.

“Tom” is a current air traffic controller who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. He’s worried the new assessment is taking quality candidates out of contention prematurely, all in the name of diversity.

“To us, it does not matter if you’re black, white, male, female, straight or gay. If you can do the job, sit down in the chair next to me and let’s go to work,” said Tom. “You have to make split second decisions and they have to be right 100 percent of the time or people will die.”

The FAA declined a News 18 interview request, but did release a statement which reads in part:

“In order to recruit a better qualified candidate and reduce costs associated with testing and training, the FAA chose to make several improvements…to enhance decision making and increase objectivity in the assessment of candidates.”

A full copy of the statement can be found at the bottom of this story.

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, 30 percent were expected to pass the biographical assessment instead of the eight percent who actually did.

Purdue Aviation Technology professor Mike Nolan said the FAA is trying to increase diversity at the same time as it is trying to make the training process more efficient. It’s a process that currently takes two to three years after someone is hired.

“The FAA does have a problem. They are trying to do both and it is difficult. When they try to change the process, you always get some sort of resistance,” said Nolan.

Some of that resistance comes from current longtime controllers who have been working for decades, yet when they tried to take the assessment under a fake name, they couldn’t pass it either.

“It seems a little odd that students who have done well [with their grades and on the aptitude test], students who have done all this all of a sudden don’t seem to do well on this biographical assessment. It seems a little unusual,” said Nolan.

In the end, Nolan believes the FAA will make adjustments so that good Purdue graduates will continue to be hired at a rate of 75 percent.

However, there’s no guarantee.

If the dire shortage predictions prove true, Nolan and Tom agree the skies will remain just as safe. But they will slow down, especially if the economy improves.

“That means delays, cancellations, it depends where you’re at,” said Nolan.

For “Pete,” a recent Purdue graduate who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, the changes have meant a delay as well. But he’s not canceling his dream, at least not yet.

“I’m not quitting. I think I was put on this earth to do this,” said Pete. “I still have the hope that there’s a place for me. But every day, that seems to get further and further away.”

The FAA does encourage candidates who didn’t pass the assessment on their first try to try again, whenever the next enrollment period opens.

Both the FAA and NATCA declined to be interviewed for this story, but each organization released a statement.

Statement released from the FAA:

“The FAA reviewed the end-to-end process of hiring and assigning air traffic control specialists. As a result, in order to recruit a better qualified candidate and reduce costs associated with testing and training, the FAA chose to make several improvements to the way it selects, trains, and assigns air traffic controllers. Improvements were made to enhance decision making and increase objectivity in the assessment of candidates.

Also in previous hires, the FAA would typically keep an inventory of qualified candidates and draw from that pool as needed. In some cases applicants might wait for long durations and never receive a tentative offer letter from the agency. In this hire, the FAA is not planning to create an inventory and as a result the number of actual positions was very limited.

The selection process for new air traffic controllers was very competitive. In the course of two weeks, we received over 28,000 applications for 1,700 positions. We expect to hire additional controllers next year and have encouraged those not selected to reapply then.”

Statement released from the NATCA:

“Our confidence in the Federal Aviation Administration’s first step in addressing a significant air traffic controller hiring need has unfortunately turned to deep concern. The FAA’s recent nationwide controller job announcement drew more than 28,000 candidates. However, only eight percent – approximately 2,200 – passed the initial “Biographical Questionnaire” evaluation and advanced in the hiring process. The FAA expected 30 percent to advance.

The FAA sets its own hiring policies and NATCA is not involved in those decisions. We continue to maintain that the FAA should hire the most qualified candidates and place them in facilities where they have the highest likelihood of success during their training. The FAA must address this flawed biographical evaluation and correct the unintended consequence of rejecting what we believe are hundreds if not thousands of qualified candidates. Many of them have very high AT-SAT test scores, high grades in CTI collegiate ATC programs, or significant experience as controllers in the military or Federal Contract Tower facilities.

There is time to get this right, but it’s dwindling. Last year’s sequestration-caused hiring freeze set back the FAA’s ability to plan for current and future openings. As a result, there are now over 3,000 controllers who are eligible to retire but only 1,500 currently training to replace them, a process that takes two to three years. Without a significant investment in the United States’ air traffic control workforce, there simply won’t be enough people to maintain the current level of ATC services, much less help NextGen modernization efforts and the National Airspace System reach its full potential.”

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