Why the FAA may need the SAFE TOWERS Act?

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To be fully staffed at Towers, Centers and TRACONs, the FAA must hire, on average, 1,240 candidates a year, according to its own analysis (A Plan for the Future: 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce 2012-2021, p.4). In the midst of that campaign, the agency initiated a new tool, a biographical assessment questionnaire, to identify individuals who might succeed in this profession.

The ATC selection process is critical to aviation safety as well as the workplace equanimity at towers, centers and TRACONs. The throughput from applicant pool to Full Performance Level controllers begins with rigorous training at the Mike Monroney Center’s FAA Academy. That generic, technical instruction is supplemented with field education. Then, at the ultimately employing facilities, the candidates learn from working controllers drawn from that ATC organization about the intricacies of the controlled airspaces.

That process is complicated; the trainers know that her/his student is needed to fill a position and completely comprehends how this individual’s ability to perform at such a high level is critical to the facility’s safety mission. The “qualification” period from initial identification to full performance level is fraught with both time and quality risks.

To minimize this uncertainty, the FAA staff created the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program (AT-CTI) as a way of placing some of the initial education burden on the prospective ATCers.  If a high school student or other person was attracted to this profession and if he/she completes an approved academic program, they should be more likely to pass the Air Traffic Skills and Training test and to be hired. In response to these innovative career advancement opportunities, 36 institutions created curricula that the FAA determined adequately taught the students the fundamentals of aviation (aircraft characteristics, weather; airspace; teamwork in aviation, navigation including charts, and search and rescue at a minimum). There are now 15 different Associates, 37 Bachelors and 3 Master’s degree programs available at AT-CTI Schools.

The CTI has created a good source of prospective controllers. However, according to Secretary Foxx, after years of using this pool of applicants, “The FAA took an opportunity to do a more broad opening of the aperture, if you will,” and added the Biographical Assessment Questionnaire. That instrument, created in response to a Barriers Analysis, focuses on a number of neutral factors. As defined in the scholarly study supporting the BAQ, it will be an

“…empirically keyed, response option-scored biodata instrument has validity as a predictor of ATCS job performance ratings. From a test fairness perspective, biodata yielded nearly identical mean scores across gender and ethnicity scores..”

What did the resulting BAQ candidate applicant class look like? According to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune, more than half (837) of the total tested potential air traffic controllers (1,600) had little to no aviation training.

Clearly there is merit to adding diversity to the ATC workforce, but if the ultimate output of the selection/qualification procedures fails to meet the needs in the field, this will not resonate well with the travelers and airlines.

As evidenced by the below article, some Members of Congress already have concluded that the BAQ should not be used to exclude CTI graduates. Congressmen 
Lipinski (D,IL) and  Congressman Hultgren (R, IL) have introduced the “Standards Addressing Federal Transparency and Oversight with Evolving Recruitment 
Specifications Act” or “SAFE TOWERS Act”.  It would create a preference for CTI graduates, remove the BAQ as criteria and require reconsideration of those 
excluded by this test.
The incentives to attract student to the ATC profession by creating the CTI program were good for aviation. Students who sought and paid for this education were 
more likely to be highly motivated long term ATC employees. Plus these teaching programs created faculty members who are interested in applying research to 
this profession.
If the problem was that this educational funnel did not bring enough minority candidates, then the FAA should have instituted its own outreach efforts and sought 
financial aid for the students from low income backgrounds. A test which appears to have decreased the quality of the candidates was a crudely crafted response 
to a problem.


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