Every time we wind up talking about DEI and aviation, we get stupider. It’s almost impossible to have a rational conversation about a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers; about barriers to entry into the profession; or about what qualifications are necessary for jobs in aviation. Instead we talk about United’s CEO dressing up as a woman at the US Airways Halloween party in 2011 (by the way, he also dressed up as Taylor Swift for Halloween at American Airlines in 2015).
However there are some areas where we’ve made bad decisions in diversity hiring. I’ve written several times about changes that were made to FAA air traffic controller hiring, that excluded controllers that had actually studied for the job in favor of those who hadn’t.
During the Obama administration, the FAA moved to ‘off the street’ hiring with diversity as a criteria, passing over graduates of FAA-approved university air traffic control programs.
- The FAA launched the Collegiate Training Initiative in 1997, working with colleges and universities to offer air traffic control degrees, and making their graduates the primary source for hiring controllers. This trumped the previous requirement of a high school degree and three years of (unrelated) work experience.
- In 2005 the FAA Inspector General recommended adding coursework to these schools to reduce training time at the FAA’s academy. The FAA didn’t do this, and Congress directed a study of the move in agency’s 2012 reauthorization.
- Instead, during the Obama administration, the FAA started an Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign which bypassed graduates. A decision made by the FAA, and not by the Air Traffic Organization, meant that both high school graduates and those with air traffic control degrees had to apply through the same program and pass both the standard aptitude test for controllers and a biographical test.
This change had the effect of bypassing hundreds of controller graduates. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) blasted the change at the time.
There are several problems with air traffic control. There’s been poor management of technology upgrades for decades.
There aren’t enough controllers, or enough training spots at the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. They don’t pay controllers enough to work at New York TRACON. And the culture of some individual towers is a problem, too, keeping out new hires and leading existing ones to be overworked.
There’s no indication that unqualified people have become controllers because of hiring practice changes. These hires don’t just have to go through extensive training, they also need to get signed off on before being released into duty. If anything, indications are that this process is too strenuous, not that it’s too lax.
Moreover, leaving behind qualified applicants isn’t why we don’t have more controllers. The FAA doesn’t have enough spots to train people.
I don’t think diversity hiring is why the FAA’s air traffic organization has problems. Still, it’s a very bad look that a class action lawsuit brought by Collegiate Training Initiative students who got passed over has uncovered some pretty bad hiring practices at the FAA.
Facing pressure to diversify an overwhelmingly white workforce, the FAA began using a biographical test as a first screen of candidates.
Meanwhile, minority candidates were fed “buzz words” to bump their resumes up to top priority. Apparently saying your worst subject in school was science served as a golden ticket. Correct answers to the take-home biographical questionnaire were given in their entirety. These questionnaires were later banned.
Remember, after the questionnaire stage they still screened for competency. This isn’t about whether controllers are competent, it’s about who was allowed to demonstrate competence. And people shunted by the process sued.
This was dumb. It’s going to become a bigger story, in light of recent DEI backlash, and because it touches something safety-related though it doesn’t appear to compromise safety.