Some Academic Lights (?) on the FAA Air Traffic Controller Recruiting & Testing Issue

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The recruiting and training of air traffic controllers has become a very contentious issue. Witness an executive angrily retiring and another resigning based on concerns about federal employment compliance. Preceding these public events, there have been debates about the closing of the Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) Schools program and the adoption of tests for new ATC positions.


Moved by the allegations made in these reports, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL-14) and a bipartisan set of co-sponsors introduced a bill, the Air Traffic Controllers Hiring Act of 2015 (H.R. 1964), which would make the candidates who qualified under the CTI Program eligible for hiring, restore the CTI and terminate the Biological Assessment instrument.

The issues in these matters are quite complex and there are valid arguments on both sides. It is hard to determine what side is right and what opinions are biased; so it is useful to hear from an outside expert and the FAA’s primary researcher who documented the validity of the BA instrument.

The pro side of academic research


Here is the FAA study supporting the Biographical Assessment instrument. Incremental Validity of Biographical Data in the Prediction of En Route Air Traffic Control Specialist Technical Skills written by Dr. Dana Broach, a personnel research psychologist at the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). He is the author of 93 journal articles, book chapters, technical publications and presentations. He earned his master’s degree and doctorate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Tulsa in 1991 and has worked at the FAA Aerospace Human Factors Research Division since 1989. At CAMI, his work has focused on Evaluation of ATCS Biographical Data and Interview Selection Procedures and Strategic Job Analysis – Selecting the AirTraffic Controller of the Future. Since his study is nine pages long; the text is not included here, but the above link will take you to the paper.


The con side of academic research

aca33Dr. Ashley Nunes is a visiting researcher at the Université Paris Descarte. There he specializes in the economics of human performance. He is a frequent contributor writer to Aviation Week and Space Technology. His curriculum vita includes a paper published in the American Psychology Association about air traffic controller performance. It is entitled Experienced Air Traffic Controllers Work Smarter, Not Harder, Making Up For Normal Mental Aging. He was awarded his PhD in engineering psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006.

His most recent work on the subject of these professionals examines the ATC hiring assessment debate mentioned in the first paragraph. Rather than trying to excerpt his analysis, it seems appropriate to simply provide it for your reading:

The controversy over how U.S. air traffic controllers are recruited shows no signs of abating. Since the story broke, the Transportation Department’s internal watchdog has launched an investigation into hiring practices at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and several high-profile “resignations” have followed. Some are now calling for hearings that will force FAA leaders to answer before the American people.

Training is an essential part of any successful business. A recent survey found that 40 percent of workers who receive poor training leave their job within the first year. Depending on the profession however, training can also be a costly affair. The FAA incurs a cost of $93,000 per air traffic control trainee annually. In comparison, most businesses will spend just $1208. Such a wide fiscal discrepancy reflects the uniqueness of a job where mistakes can be fatal and close calls make headlines. However, pre-selecting candidates who are most likely to succeed can help minimize these costs. This approach strikes a balance between fiscal and operational concerns. It also inextricably ties the employer’s fate to that of the trainee. Trainee success means employer success.

The FAA has historically used the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) test to screen potential recruits. Since its introduction in 2002, more than 22,000 applicants have taken the test and more than 6,800 controllers have been hired as a result. However, 2014 saw the FAA introduce a new Biographical Assessment (BA). The agency argues that the BA “measures qualities known to predict air traffic controller success” and has been “validated based on years of extensive research.” But do these claims stand up to scrutiny?

AT-SAT consists of eight sub-tests. These tests measure among other things an applicant’s ability to scan and interpret instrument readings, detect targets that change over time, and determine the angles of intersecting lines: in other words, abilities that play a vital role in air traffic control. The predictive power of AT-SAT is well documented. A 2013 FAA study found a positive relationship between test performance and training outcome. Higher AT-SAT scores meant a greater likelihood of being certified as a controller. Researchers concluded that the available evidence “supports the validity of AT-SAT as a personnel selection procedure for the (ATC) occupation.” Multiple investigations over the last fifteen years have come to the same conclusion.

The BA on the other hand, is something of a different beast. It asks questions such as “How would you describe your ideal job?”; “What has been the major cause of your failures?”; and perhaps most notably “The number of different high school sports I participated in was:
 A) 4 or more.. B) 3.. C) 2.. D) 1.. E) Didn’t play sports.” How such questions help the FAA pre-select the best and brightest candidates is anyone’s guess, as the agency has resisted calls to release any data regarding the issue. The only publicly available study concluded that certain BA-related questions “did little” to improve the FAA’s ability to preselect applicants and that the evidence for using such questions was “weak.”

These findings are not lost on lawmakers like Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) who is now cosponsoring legislation that forces the FAA to abandon the BA altogether.

When this story broke last May, Fox Business interviewed Matthew Douglas, a 26-year-old Washingtonian who completed the BA. When reviewing the questions posed by the new test, he asked a simple yet important one of his own. “How does this relate to the job?” The answer lies somewhere within the walls of the FAA. The agency has a long history of making taxpayer-funded research data publicly available. So why not do so now?

Hopefully these academic analyses will shed some light on this controversy and even if the reader is not convinced, these theses should at least explain the rational on both sides.


ARTICLE: The $93,000 question

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