Grounded by FAA Rules

Colleges with air traffic control programs lose students as result of changes in hiring preferences. Is federal agency ignoring need for higher education for those in a role that is essential to safety?

September 23, 2015
Community College of Beaver County aviation instructor George Kirkpatrick with student Keysaun Parker

Two years ago the Community College of Beaver County had a waiting list for its air traffic control program. Now the Pennsylvania college has slots open.

A similar story has taken place in Colorado at Aims Community College. Where a thriving air traffic control program regularly saw about 20 students a semester, it is now hanging on by a thread to stay open.

Both programs have seen high success rates for their graduates in the Federal Aviation Administration Academy, a formal training program for new air traffic control hires. And the drops aren't because the air traffic control field doesn't have jobs. Rather they are due to controversial changes in the federal hiring process that eliminated -- some say incorrectly -- the need for new hires to have the kind of training provided by Beaver County and Aims, and other colleges.

Both colleges are part of the FAA's Air Traffic Control (ATC) Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program.

Almost two years ago the FAA changed its hiring practices. Before that the agency had granted a preference in hiring to graduates of a CTI-approved program (although the FAA continued to accept other applicants as well). That program, which at the time was offered at 36 colleges and universities across the country, prepared students in the air traffic control field and was considered a prerequisite if a candidate wanted to succeed at the FAA Academy. A student from a CTI-approved program typically also earned an associate or bachelor's degree.

But in December 2013, the FAA dropped the preference for CTI graduates and instead relied only on a biographical questionnaire to review candidates for air traffic controller positions. The pool of more than 3,000 candidates waiting to be hired -- many of whom had received CTI recommendations and passed the FAA's skills and aptitude exam -- was purged.

The colleges believe the FAA changes were made based on an agency diversity study that examined the race and gender of CTI graduates. In particular, the study found low numbers of black students in CTI programs and that the FAA's aptitude exam was a racial and gender diversity barrier. Under the change, candidates now take the aptitude exam after completing the biographical questionnaire.

"Unfortunately this had the effect of harming the very students who have passion and are the ones who are successful. They're wiping out a list of graduates who invested time and effort to go to an off-the-street questionnaire," said Michael Pearson, a retired air traffic controller and lawyer who is working with the Association of Collegiate Training Institutions. "This was proven to give people the opportunity to succeed at a high rate. I don't see how this is fair to a person who applies, walks off the street and their washout rate is much higher. It's cruel and unfair because you're setting up people for failure."

According to the FAA, the agency reviewed the process for hiring and chose to make improvements. A statement from 2014 about the change said, "The new hiring process is blind on the issue of diversity, from start to finish, meaning we do not know the diversity of our candidates until they are hired. The selection process for new air traffic controllers was very competitive …. 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, which was a point of criticism from candidates."

"Because the FAA has changed the national perception of the hiring practice, the CTIs are being hit," said Bill Pinter, dean of aviation sciences at the Beaver County college, which had one of the highest success rates for graduates at the FAA Academy at 97 percent.

In 2013, there were about 200 students in the college's air traffic control program, but now, post-change, the college has about 60 students in the program.

"That's a sustainable number to provide quality, but unfortunately for other colleges that had smaller enrollments to begin with, like 40 to 60 students, and now they're down to 10 or 15, that's not sustainable and they can't wait it out," Pinter said.

Potential students are weighing whether it's worth the cost of attending a college and entering a CTI program, versus taking the biographical questionnaire as an "off the street" candidate, since both are regarded as equal to the FAA under the new hiring practices.

That biographical questionnaire is controversial as well. Many air traffic controllers feel it is an invalid exam. The assessment allows candidates to self-report online and is pass/fail. It also asks questions about the type of sports a candidate played in high school, as well as their high school grade point averages, Pinter said.

"We still have students who are interested in the program, so when they come to us we inform them of what's going on at the FAA and that they have to take and pass a biographical assessment. Except we can't train them on it because we don't control what sports they played in high school or even if they graduated as a straight-A student, so they run the risk of not being hired," said Dusty Brailsford, director of aviation at Aims.

Even students who passed the FAA's aptitude and skills exam, which had long been required as a prerequisite to hiring, could find themselves not hired if they failed the biographical assessment. There were students who scored high on the aptitude exam from Aims and received CTI recommendations, but under the new rules had to take the biographical questionnaire and failed, said Larry Stephen, an Aims aviation faculty member.

Aims saw a 66 percent drop in enrollment last year because of the FAA changes, despite having a 95 percent success rate for graduates at the FAA Academy.

"The program itself is a powerhouse," Brailsford said. "But we were considering doing a teach-out," which would be the demise of the program.

But that teach-out has, at least for now, been delayed because of support from Congress for the CTI program and a House bill called Air Traffic Controllers Hiring Act of 2015 that would eliminate the biographical questionnaire and restore the FAA's preference for CTI and military-trained candidates. Illinois Republican Representative Randy Hultgren has been the biggest advocate for the bill, which is currently sitting in a subcommittee.

"We're allowed to continue through at least next semester. At the end of the next semester we'll probably revisit and see if this has passed or what's going on in Congress and then make a determination from there, but we've been given grace through spring 2016," Brailsford said, adding that by that time the program may have about 20 people still enrolled. It enrolled six students this semester.

Prior to the change, the college saw about 25 students enroll in the air traffic control program per semester.

There have been plenty of questions and Freedom of Information Act requests to the FAA about the details of the biographical questionnaire. Just what exactly is it measuring and how does a person's background determine if they're ready to be an air traffic controller? But those questions have yet to be answered, Brailsford said.

Colleges like CCBC and Aims are holding out and hopeful that congressional changes to the FAA's hiring practices will restore their enrollment numbers and program perceptions. But others, like the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, have already shut down their air traffic control programs.

Although there were a number of reasons behind ending the CTI air traffic control program at MCTC, the FAA's hiring change was the main factor, said Trena Mathis, an air traffic control instructor at the college, in an email. She's currently doing a teach-out for the 12 students that are finishing the courses.

Pinter said there has already been some progress due to the pressure put on the FAA by Congress, students and parents. Over the last year, the FAA has adjusted the biographical questionnaire to specifically question students who have had training at a CTI institution and to award them with additional points.

The changes are coming at an interesting time for the FAA because the agency is in a hiring period. That's because of the cyclical hiring of controllers that began in the 1980s due to the air traffic controllers' organization strike. President Ronald Reagan fired the striking controllers, which led to massive hiring for people in the field. Air traffic control is often described as a stressful career, so the agency limits employment to about 25 years. The FAA has a mandatory retirement age of 56 and controllers are allowed to start at the Oklahoma City academy no later than their 31st birthday, although there are some exceptions to the age rules.

The FAA estimates that between 2013 and 2022, they will lose more than 12,000 air traffic controllers -- of which more than 5,000 will be due to retirement.

So to many in the education community, the hiring changes and the lack of prominence of the CTI program appear to be backward. Especially when these programs show that their graduates have high rates of success in the FAA Academy.

"I'm not trying to beat on the FAA. They need to be strong and they have a tremendous responsibility and I respect that," Pinter said. "But we're trying to work with them to figure out the best system so the United States and the FAA can hire the best candidates to be successful to make the air traffic control career."

CTI-approved Colleges and Universities

  • Aims Community College
  • Arizona State University
  • Eastern New Mexico University
  • Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona
  • Green River Community College
  • Metropolitan State College of Denver
  • Mount San Antonio College
  • Sacramento City College
  • University of Alaska Anchorage
  • Hesston College
  • Kent State University
  • LeTourneau University
  • Lewis University
  • Middle Tennessee State University
  • Purdue University
  • Texas State Technical College
  • Tulsa Community College
  • University of North Dakota
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Western Michigan University
  • Broward College
  • Community College of Beaver County
  • Daniel Webster College
  • Dowling College
  • Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida
  • Florida Institute of Technology College of Aeronautics
  • Florida State College at Jacksonville
  • Hampton University
  • InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico
  • Jacksonville University
  • Miami Dade College
  • Middle Georgia State College
  • Community College of Baltimore County
  • Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology


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