Two Illinois Lawmakers Seek to Dump New FAA Controller Hiring Rules
A new federal policy aimed at making it easier for members of the general public with no aviation background to embark on careers in air traffic control would be reversed under legislation proposed in Congress on Friday.
The Safe Towers Act, introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican, and co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D.-Ill., seeks to restore the Federal Aviation Administration's traditional recruitment process for hiring air traffic controllers. Those practices, in place for almost 25 years, favored graduates of FAA-accredited college aviation programs and military veterans with aviation experience, ahead of the general public.
Over the past winter, the FAA abruptly switched the recruitment focus to prioritize off-the-street candidates, as part of a strategy to replace more than 10,000 air traffic controllers who will retire over the next decade, the Tribune reported in May. The FAA controller workforce totals about 14,100, and white males make up the majority of the staffing at airport towers and radar facilities.
FAA officials have dismissed suggestions from critics that the new rules lack transparency and are designed primarily to increase diversity within the controller ranks, while risking an erosion of safety. FAA officials said the new process is more streamlined and will reduce testing costs. But the change followed an internal FAA analysis that showed the long-standing recruitment and testing protocols were a "barrier'' for some minorities, particularly African-Americans.
Individuals with specialized degrees from aviation schools and military veterans are still able to apply under the new rules. But before taking the traditional skill test examining an individual's aptitude for working in air traffic control, all applicants must now first pass a controversial biographical questionnaire, an online pass/fail test in which the FAA has refused to release the scoring metrics or each applicant's actual score.
Some of the 62 questions on the multiple-choice test, which the Tribune reviewed, appear geared toward evaluating the test-taker's personality and self-image. It included questions about how peers would describe the individual and the age at which the person started to earn money.
Hultgren, whose congressional district has the most air traffic controllers of any district in the state, said there are strong indications that the FAA changes have "threatened the safety of passengers'' and caused "unjust economic injury to qualified candidates'' who have invested tens of thousands of dollars in college aviation courses.
"The Safe Towers Act is targeted at making sure we have the best and brightest in our control towers,'' Hultgren said.
He said the legislation was filed in part because "the FAA has been non-responsive to my inquiries about how their new hiring practices make our skies safer. We still have more questions than answers.''
The proposed legislation would re-implement the preferred status for college aviation graduates who have received recommendations from their schools and for military veterans, while eliminating the use of a biographical assessment that "unduly disqualifies applicants.''
In addition, it calls on the FAA to soon reconsider applicants who have failed the biographical questionnaire or "aged out'' by reaching age 31, which disqualifies candidates from being hired as controllers. The mandatory retirement age for controllers is 56.
The Safe Towers Act also would create an advisory committee to provide recommendations to the FAA administrator in connection with air traffic control training programs. The committee would include air traffic control organizations, college controller schools and FAA appointments.
Lipinski is so far the only co-sponsor of the bill.
"Lewis University in Romeoville has one of the premier (air traffic control) programs in the nation," Lipinski said. "For years its graduates, along with our military controllers, have gone on to proudly work for the FAA. Now, with these hastily implemented hiring procedures, the FAA is turning its back on the students and brave veterans that should be the backbone of our air traffic control system.''
In the first round of hiring this year under the new policy, about 22,500 people without an aviation background applied, the FAA said. Of those, 837 were offered jobs. The remainder of the roughly 1,600 new controller slots went to more traditional applicants, including military veterans with aviation experience and accredited aviation school graduates, the FAA said.
FAA officials said the new process has helped the agency "select from a larger pool of qualified applicants than under past vacancy announcements" and reduced testing and training costs.
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