When a distressed airline employee stole an empty plane from Sea-Tac airport Aug. 11, many feared the worst. Facing a one-in-a-million scenario, a calm and collected air traffic controller (ATC) communicated with the stolen plane’s pilot throughout the scare and prevented the incident from becoming a deadlier tragedy.
It was a solemn reminder of the critical role ATCs play in safeguarding the lives of 2.5 million airline passengers each day in the United States. ATCs must necessarily be among the most skilled and competent federal government employees.
In accordance with an Obama administration plan to “transform” the Federal Aviation Administration into a “more diverse workplace” however, the FAA has abandoned its merit-based hiring program for ATCs, as it implements a plan to hire 1,000 ATCs a year to replace a generation of retiring controllers. Congress can and should intervene in this unfortunate plan to restore sanity and safety to the skies, because it endangers people’s lives.
Here’s what happened. It is expensive and time-consuming to train ATCs, and many candidates who believe they have what it takes fail to complete the training. To mitigate this issue, the FAA historically hired most ATCs through a successful program known as the Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), through which it partnered with 36 undergraduate institutions to recruit and train prospective ATCs.
Upon graduating from a CTI school with an aviation degree and obtaining a recommendation from the school, CTI students took a rigorous aptitude assessment known as the AT-SAT, which tested for critical aptitudes: numeric ability, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visualization, problem solving, and movement detection. The test was used to predict whether prospective hires would withstand the rigorous training at the ATC academy in Oklahoma City. Most importantly, once a CTI graduate passed the AT-SAT, he or she was put on a Qualified Applicant Register and given a hiring priority for open ATC positions.
CTI graduates, combined with Veteran’s Recruitment Appointments (VRAs) for service members, made up nearly all ATC hiring. Only when the CTI and VRA programs could not meet the demand did the FAA hire ATCs from the unscreened general public, a process known as “off-the-street” hiring, for which any U.S. citizen with a high school diploma is eligible.
Under the pretense of increasing ATC diversity, the FAA decided to eliminate the Qualified Applicant Register in December 2013 and instead hire ATCs exclusively off the street, even though the number of black CTI enrollees already exceeded the percentage of African-Americans in the civilian workforce. Thousands of CTI graduates (many of whom took on significant student loans), women and minorities among them, were told to re-apply through the new process and take the AT-SAT again.
But this time they were also forced to take an additional “Biographical Questionnaire” designed by the FAA’s Human Resources and Civil Rights offices. In reality, the questionnaire discriminates against and disqualifies CTI graduates who do not belong to preferred minority groups.
Amid media scrutiny and a class-action lawsuit against the FAA, Congress attempted to address the ATC hiring issue in the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. Led by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), reformers wanted to restore the hiring program that gave priority to CTI graduates and military veterans over off-the-street hires. Racial politics, however, resulted in a half-hearted congressional compromise with the employee unions that dominate the FAA.
Pursuant to the 2016 law, the FAA currently gives priority in hiring to experienced ATCs with a year or more of experience. For any remaining ATC positions, however, the FAA must hire equally from two pools. Pool 1 consists of CTI graduates and military veterans. Pool 2 is strictly off-the-street hiring. So, under this paradigm, CTI graduates must compete with veterans for just 50 percent of the open positions. The other 50 percent of openings nonsensically go to people with no training, experience, or demonstrated aptitudes.
Unsurprisingly, the washout rate is significantly higher for off-the-street ATC hires than it is for CTI graduates, which wastes taxpayer dollars. Even though the 2016 law prohibits the FAA from using the notorious Biographical Questionnaire on applicants from Pool 1, elements of the racially discriminatory test have been stealthily incorporated by the career ideologues at the FAA.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has proposed an amendment to the 2018 FAA Reauthorization bill that would finally restore the common-sense system the Obama administration had jettisoned. Priority for open ATC jobs that experienced controllers did not fill would first go to CTI school graduates and military veterans from Pool 1. Only after this source of capable applicants were exhausted would the FAA would be able to hire off-the-street.
Congress has an opportunity, and a duty, to safeguard the skies and save taxpayer money by reinstating the CTI program.