FAA changes hiring practices for air traffic controllers ignoring qualified students and vets

DENVER - Thousands of potential FAA air traffic control trainees, with College Initiative Training (CTI) degrees or previous military experience, have been told by the federal agency they are no longer eligible for job interviews. Instead, the FAA has decided to accept less qualified applicants, apparently to satisfy concerns that the agency needs a more diverse workforce.

More than 25 members of Congress have expressed concern with the new hiring process for air traffic controllers rolled out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this year. In a letter to the head of the FAA, members of Congress stated "it is apparent to us there is a lack of transparency in the FAA's interim revised hiring process."

"We were told through the FAA, if you want to be a controller you need to go through one of our CTI-approved programs," said CTI graduate Ryan Meryhew. 

Thirty-six schools nationwide carry the distinction of having an FAA-approved program for air traffic controllers by offering a CTI degree. Aims Community College and Metropolitan State University are two Colorado schools that prepare students for careers in aviation and air traffic control through their CTI degree programs.

These are multi-year programs with top-notch simulators and air traffic control programs designed to train students to take the initial air traffic control test called the AT-SAT, which is required by the FAA to begin advanced training at the FAA academy.

"In school I did very well. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA. I passed the AT-SAT exam with a 99.5 percent, a near perfect score on the test that the FAA said you've got to pass," said Meryhew.  "I knew I had a passion for the position. It's something that I wanted to do. I dedicated and put everything I had into the program."

In the past, Ryan Meryhew would have been considered "highly qualified" for the FAA's air traffic control program, and like veterans who had military traffic control experience, he would have been given preference in the hiring process.

But suddenly, earlier this year, thousands of students like Ryan were told they were no longer eligible to proceed with the application process. In February, the FAA ignored the pool of applicants waiting to be interviewed for air traffic control positions who had already graduated from school and passed the AT-SAT exam.

Priority for veterans and CTI graduates was no longer given. Instead, anyone interested in becoming an air traffic controller would be part of the same pool of applicants-- a combination of "off the street hires" and those with specialized education or prior experience.

The initial hurdle for all applicants was based solely on a new, online biographical questionnaire that gave test takers instant results.

"It didn't ask me anything about my college experience, my grades, my scores, (and) my ability for the actual job. It asked me what sports I played in high school. What was my least favorite subject in high school. Nothing related to aviation," remembered Meryhew.

"I get a big red 'X' when I applied saying I'm not qualified, but no reason why," explained Annie Keinholz. "Biographically ineligible."

Annie Keinholz, a pilot, finished near the top of her class at Aims Community College and scored a 93 percent on the AT-SAT before the FAA made changes to the hiring process. Now, Keinholz is considered biographically ineligible, and unable to re-take the AT-SAT exam that she previously passed.

She told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia she does not know what biographically ineligible means. She contacted the FAA for information on what caused her to fail the questionnaire, but has yet to receive an answer.

"Right now I still feel angry…I feel like I wasted three years of my life. I followed the rules, and my faith in the government has just gone downhill," said Keinholz.

Professor Kevin Kuhlmann, a retired military pilot who teaches in the CTI program at Metro State said, "Done deal. There's nothing you can do about it." 

Changes to the air traffic controller hiring process were abrupt. Schools with CTI programs were not consulted about the upcoming changes and were only  informed after the FAA made their decision to change the hiring process.

After the announcement, the FAA held a teleconference with CTI schools, but Kuhlmann explained that has been the extent of the FAA's communication.

"FAA's telling us nothing," said Kuhlmann. "They say that they treasure the relationship that they've built with us, but what they're saying and what their actions are don't jive together."

Kuhlmann argues, as does the Association of CTI schools, that the FAA is taking less qualified applicants that have no clear aptitude for the job. In the end, they say, the policy will will cost taxpayers millions.

Kuhlmann reasoned that because students have already paid for their own initial training by attending schools like Metro State, they will have "less time at the facility, less per diem. They're not on the payroll for those six weeks. They're not put up in a hotel for those six weeks."

In contrast to Professor Kuhlmann's prediction that the new hiring changes will cost taxpayers millions, the FAA claims the new system will save money but provided CALL7 Investigators no data to back up the claim.

Kuhlmann pointed to a 2012 study conducted by the FAA showing that when veterans, CTI students, and hires off the street are compared by the amount of time it takes to become a "Certified Professional Controller," or CPC, those hired off the street take longer and therefore cost more.

"It means they're going to be there longer. They're going to have to do the basic course, and it's going to cost more money," said Kuhlmann.

In the same report, it showed in the final survey year that hires off the street and veterans when compared to CTI graduates had a higher wash-out rate. In addition, CTI graduates and veterans each had a higher rate of success in becoming Certified Professional Controllers than off the street hires.

A June 2013 FAA study stated, “Simply based on training performance, a preference for CTI graduates over GP (general population) applicants at both en route and terminal facilities seems warranted.”

No one that the CALL7 Investigators spoke with about the hiring changes knew why the FAA set aside those who were proven to be successful in favor of taking a chance on hires off the street.

"I believe that the FAA's motivation is to gain more diversity in the hiring pool," said Kuhlmann. "But they won't say it in that way. They will not say it. Even on the teleconference. They'll just say, 'We've engineered the biographical questionnaire in a way that we think will promote diversity.'"

However, if that is the case, a 2013 FAA report contradicts that position by stating, "It is clear that the 36 academic institutions helped introduce the air traffic control profession to minorities who may have not been familiar with jobs and opportunities that the field of aviation represents."

The FAA declined to be interviewed. Instead, FAA management crafted a general statement that clearly avoided answering any of Ferrugia’s questions.

"The biographical assessment measures ATCS job applicant characteristics that have been shown empirically to predict success as an air traffic controller in the FAA," the statement claimed.

However, the FAA provided no proof, only that it "was independently validated by outside experts."

"We have hundreds of people sitting around waiting, ready, willing to go take a job, and be qualified and keep our skies safe," said Keinholz. "And the government thinks its ok to do an about face, to take up anybody."

"It's complete injustice for the FAA to say, 'if you want to come work for us you need to do this.' Then to go and do and meet those requirements, only at the end for them to say 'ah we're going to change the rules.'"


-- FAA Statement --

"In 2013, the FAA reviewed the end-to-end process of hiring and assigning air traffic control specialists. As a result, in order to recruit a better qualified candidate and reduce costs associated with testing and training, the FAA chose to make several improvements to the way it selects, trains, and assigns air traffic controllers.  Improvements were made to enhance decision making and increase objectivity in the assessment of candidates. The selection process for new air traffic controllers was very competitive.  In the course of two weeks, we received over 28,000 applications for 1,700 positions. We expect to hire additional controllers next year and have encouraged those not selected to reapply then". On background, we provided the following information: Completing coursework at a CTI school does not guarantee employment with the FAA. However, the agency considers education and aviation related experience in the hiring process. The biographical assessment measures air traffic control specialist job applicant characteristics that have been shown empirically to predict success as an air traffic controller in the FAA. These characteristics include factors such as prior general and air traffic control-specific work experience, education and training, work habits, academic and other achievements, and life experiences among other factors. The biographical assessment was independently validated by outside experts. The AT-SAT is an aptitude test of cognitive abilities and skills. The biographical assessment serves as an initial qualifier in this process before applicants take the AT-SAT test. Finally we explained all new air traffic control specialists undergo rigorous training and must demonstrate proficiency before they are able to work traffic by themselves. The training includes classroom work and on-the-job training with a certified controller. Additionally, all radar controllers and many tower controllers undergo simulator training as part of the training process."

**Note: Neither John Ferrugia nor 7NEWS ever agreed to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer's unilateral assertion that this information was provided "on background." Background is a journalistic term that traditionally means both journalist and source have agreed in advance to share information but not use quotes or attribution to the source.

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