FAA urgent Controller hire appears not to be relevant to NextGen

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The FAA posted a notice that it was hiring 6,000 controllers. Its publication was long overdue, but more significantly, the name and description of the position apply to the past (top picture), not the future (bottom picture). How is that possible?

It is well known that the necessity of hiring 11,000 controllers in 1981+ has created a major peak for finding replacements now. The announcement for this new class could easily be a mere copy of the 34 year old text:

“This is a developmental Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATCS) position responsible for the safe, orderly, and expeditious movement of air traffic through the nation’s airspace. Developmental controllers receive a wide range of training in controlling and separating live air traffic within designated airspace at and around an airport traffic control tower or radar approach control facility, or air route traffic control center.
As a new ATCS, you will spend your first several weeks of employment in an intensive training program at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK. While attending academy training you will be on a temporary appointment. Academy students receive basic air traffic control training at the FAA Academy, which includes:

  • Highlights of Federal employment
  • Familiarization with organizational structure & functions,
  • Aircraft, air traffic control system, & aviation industry,
  • Classroom instruction,
  • Workshop exercises relating to air traffic control system.

That seems to be anachronism since the FAA has announced that the future ATC will be operated within the different architecture called NextGen. In 2001 a set of research studies were initiated in recognition that the relationship between the FAA personnel at the new positions whose job is to communicate to the pilots will be dramatically different.

Most notably an expert in the analysis of the job, Charles Keegan (resume: Transportation Training and Integration Solutions Leader of Raytheon; before that the following FAA positions: Vice President, Operations Planning Services; Director, the old JPDO and Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisitions) focused on the training deficiencies of using the textbook of the past by saying:

“Yet even amid this profound technological transformation, the air traffic controllers of the future are still learning from yesterday’s playbook.”

That observation equally applies to the FAA’s hiring criteria.

The old technology relied upon the individual controllers to “control” traffic, i.e. (s)he would direct the aircraft over prescribed routes. The ATCer committed to memory the headings, altitude, rate of climb/descent and communication frequencies of all the lines within the scope under his/her command. At every stage in the flight, the controller would direct the flights to those waypoints.

NextGen’s satellite-based navigation allows an infinite set of flight tracks. In the future, the job of the FAA person communicating with the pilots is one of managing the aircraft within her/his sector—advising the pilot of weather & traffic issues and offering alternatives, not controlling. Much of the historic talk between the ATC and the aircraft will be accomplished via ADS-B out and future air navigation system (FANS) controller pilot datalink communications (CPDLC).

That set of job tasks, old vs. new, defines substantive differences. The skills, which described a capable controller of old, are not directly relevant to the equivalent work under the NextGen technology. The FAA’s job offering reflects the past and not the future; hiring on this basis may well result in serious job dysfunction—telling pilots where to go rather than relying on the electronic systems to make that link and reserving their intervention to the situations needing their attention.

It is not entirely clear whether this hiring initiative will be based on traditional sources or will rely on an untested, highly criticized new evaluating program.

There is urgency in finding a cadre of talented people to replace those ATCers who are expected to retire. There is myopia in not defining hiring criteria and establishing training relevant to the future personnel requirements of NextGen.

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1 Comment on "FAA urgent Controller hire appears not to be relevant to NextGen"

  1. The problem was recognized way back when I worked for Walt Luffsey. The question is the degree the system will be automated…completely? What day will the controller get off shift as as an active participant and come back the next day as a monitor? Can you get a person who is used to be actively engaged change to a passive participant almost over night? Some will, some wont.

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