The training room inside the control tower at O'Hare International Airport features screens that can be closed to show a simulated 360 degree view. (Tribune file photo / June 30, 2011)
By Jon Hilkevitch Tribune reporter
5:22 p.m. CDT, July 30, 2014
More than half of the latest batch of air-traffic controller job offers nationwide went to people with no aviation experience as part of a program designed to expand hiring among the general public, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.
About 22,500 people without an aviation background initially applied. 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 hiring breakdown marks a major shift in FAA recruitment strategy, which is now geared toward trying to keep ahead of a wave of controller retirements while also attracting more minorities and women to the nation’s largely white and male controller work force in airport towers and radar facilities, officials have said.
FAA officials defended the switch Wednesday, saying the process that includes a personality test-like biographical assessment helped the agency “select from a larger pool of qualified applicants than under past vacancy announcements” and reduced testing and training costs.
“The bio-data assessment served its intended purpose of screening a large pool of applicants into a smaller group of the best candidates,” an FAA statement issued Wednesday said.
Controller applicants who are hired go through 17 weeks of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and three years of on-the-job training to achieve full certification, the FAA said. The FAA is generally able to shave about five weeks off the training for graduates of the college program.
For almost the last 25 years, until the off-the-street hiring process was implemented in February, the FAA recruited controllers heavily from among military veterans possessing aviation experience and from the 36 FAA-approved college aviation programs across the U.S., the Tribune reported this spring.
Those two groups of candidates, who previously had the inside track to become air-traffic controllers, must now jump through the same hoops as candidates with no aviation background, and the first whittling of potential controller candidates centers on a controversial biographical assessment.
Under the revised program, the pass rate for the almost 6,000 aviation students and graduates was about 13 percent, the FAA said.
Critics of the FAA’s new controller recruitment process said that rate — while three times higher than that of other applicants — was significantly reduced because of the biographical assessment, which weeded out many applicants before they had an opportunity to take the traditional air-traffic control tests that assess knowledge and aptitude for working in the fast-paced, high-tension world of directing planes.
Some aviation experts said the FAA’s move to increase diversity in its controller work force by hiring candidates with no prior aviation experience could compromise flight safety and lead to a high wash-out rate among the new hires.
The FAA will need to replace about 10,000 controllers over the next decade. Many of the agency’s roughly 15,000 controllers are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 or are otherwise becoming eligible to collect full pensions.
Members of Congress have sought assurances from the FAA that safety will not be impaired, and the lawmakers also blasted the FAA for a “lack of transparency” in the new controller hiring policy.
The biographical assessment consisted of 62 multiple-choice questions, many of which mirrored questions in a personality test. It included questions about how peers would describe the individual and the age at which the person started to earn money.
Some critics, including faculty of college controller training programs, said the online biographical assessment included no safeguards to ensure that the job applicant was actually the same person who took the assessment.
The FAA said it received more than 28,000 applications for 1,700 controller candidate vacancies, including about 22,500 applications from the general public, of which 837 passed and were offered jobs.
Applicants with controller training in college programs “did very well,’’ FAA spokeswoman Kristie Greco said, pointing to the 754 jobs offered to air-traffic control students and graduates.
About 65 percent of the new class of controller candidates has “some combination of (collegiate controller training), military or some specific aviation-related work history or experience,’’ Greco said.