Terry McLaughlin: Hiring practice of Federal Aviation Administration leaves a number of questions | TheUnion.com

Terry McLaughlin: Hiring practice of Federal Aviation Administration leaves a number of questions

Terry McLaughlin
Columnist

A revamped hiring process for Federal Air Traffic Controllers put into place during the previous administration was designed to broaden the applicant pool.

Critics, however, say it has threatened public safety by selecting candidates with no experience over graduates of rigorous aviation programs and military veterans with air traffic control experience.

Historically, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted a preference in hiring to graduates of a Collegiate Training Initiative-approved program. That program prepared students in the air traffic control field and was considered a prerequisite to success at the FAA Academy. The majority of new air traffic control hires had served as controllers in the military, or graduated from a Collegiate Training Initiative program, typically earning an associate or bachelor's degree.

In December 2013, the FAA dropped the preference for the program's graduates and changed the hiring process by adding a "Biographical Questionnaire." The pool of more than 3,000 candidates waiting to be hired in 2014, most of whom had graduated from the program and had already passed the FAA's skills and aptitude test, was purged.

Under the new FAA procedures, aspiring Air Traffic Controllers would be required to pass the Biographical Questionnaire before taking the Air Traffic Selection and Training Exam.

During a Congressional hearing on March 14, 2014, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked probing questions of then Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Senator Murray noted the plight of the 3,000-plus graduates of the FAA-sponsored Collegiate Training Initiative programs who had invested years and thousands of dollars obtaining degrees in aviation and air traffic control, only to have their names purged from the hiring list. They were required to reapply and compete with thousands of new applicants who merely had to meet minimum qualifications of a high school diploma or three years of unrelated work experience.

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Even more troubling to Senator Murray was the requirement that these previously qualified applicants pass the Biographical Questionnaire, which included random and unrelated questions such as the age at which they first began to earn money or how many high school sports they played.

Senator Murray noted that in 2014, of the 28,000 people who applied, only 2,200 passed the Biographical Questionnaire. Numerous qualified program graduates failed the Biographical Questionnaire, with no explanation as to why.

"How can this be?" she asked Secretary Foxx.

Tom Daly, dean of Dowling College's Collegiate Training Initiative-approved School of Aviation was quoted as saying "I have a couple of students who actually were air traffic controllers in the military and failed that test … How could you be an air traffic controller for five years, very successfully, and fail that test?"

In a June 2015 letter to then FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Peter Kirsanow, a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, expressed his concerns over the hiring standards for Air Traffic Controllers.

"The FAA has abandoned or diluted objective standards of evaluating competence … Secretary Foxx told Congress that 'The FAA took an opportunity to … get a larger universe of applicants into the program.' Translated this means the FAA didn't like the racial and gender composition of the people in its pool of potential Air Traffic Controllers. It is hard to imagine a non-racially motivated reason for jettisoning a pool of people who had already been rated as qualified."

"It is particularly odd", Kirsanow continued, "that the FAA would change its selection procedures when its own studies … found that the AT-SAT score was the only piece of biodata, other than age, that was a useful predictor of whether an individual would successfully complete Air Traffic Controller training . . . it is difficult to be optimistic that the seemingly random questions on the BQ have any predictive power."

A federal reverse discrimination lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 3,000-plus qualified candidates turned away by the FAA by the Mountain States Legal Foundation on December 31, 2015. An attorney for the Foundation said "We have a statement from a leading FAA official … that they made this decision in order to increase diversity," referring to a statement made by FAA public affairs specialist Tony Molinaro.

After continuous delays, on May 31 of this year a federal judge in Washington, DC, has restored the lawsuit's demand for full reinstatement of qualified applicants who had been purged by the FAA's discriminatory hiring program. This suit continues to wind its way through the legal system.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) in 2016 to end the use of the Biographical Questionnaire, was signed into law as part of a larger bill that reauthorized the FAA through September 2017. The reauthorization passed by Congress included language to eliminate the discredited Biographical Questionnaire, however, according to the FAA's own current website, the Biographical Questionnaire is still in use by the FAA today.

Why is that?

As Rep. Hultgren stated, "This isn't just about securing a fair job application process or the status quo. This is about Americans feeling and being safe and secure when flying."

In 2013, who thought that sacrificing public safety for the sake of diversity was a good idea? Offering assistance to under-represented persons to enroll in approved training programs would have been a reasonable action, but bypassing the most qualified, experienced and skilled candidates tasked with the responsibility for safely guiding thousands of people to their destination is an outrageous proposition that should never have been acceptable.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.

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