Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Federal Aviation Administration rules stopping Mt. San Antonio College students from getting jobs as air traffic controllers

Veteran Chris Schneider worked as an air traffic controller in the Air Force. He went back to school and earned a degree in aviation science from Mt. San Antonio College, carrying a 3.48 GPA. He passed the government’s aptitude exam.

But even though he can guide an F-16 onto a dusty landing strip, he is not a good candidate for air traffic controller and his application was rejected, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and his teachers.

He will have to re-apply in 2015, they said.

Schneider is one of thousands of college students in the U.S. spending hours staring into airplane-control simulators who are being turned away from jobs as air traffic controllers because they can’t pass a biographical questionnaire.

The new 62-question test was added as a screening device in January “in order to recruit a better qualified candidate,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in a written statement. But aeronautics professors and one U.S. senator say the new FAA screening method is unfair to students studying under the old rules. It could lead to dangerous conditions for the nation’s air travelers if less-qualified men and women receive preference over college-trained applicants, they say.

“Under this new system, it is not very far off when we will have controllers who know less and less about the system,” said Steve Shackelford, a professor at Mt. SAC, the largest community college in the state, and a former air traffic controller.

Shackelford said there is no longer a requirement for a high school degree.

The FAA wants to hire at least 1,000 air traffic controllers a year, up to 10,000 new positions, to meet demand left by an aging workforce. Air traffic controllers must leave their jobs when they reach age 56.

At first, this was good news for the 35 schools in the country with Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programs, who’ve invested millions in computer simulators and instructors from the field.

That changed for Mt. SAC, one of only two AT-CTI programs in the state, the other being Sacramento City College, on Dec. 30, 2013 when the FAA said it would add the new test. About 92 percent of AT-CTI students have failed the biographical questionnaire (BQ), even those who passed the FAA’s aptitude exam, said Professor Robert Rogus, co-chairman of the Aeronautics Department.

Rogus says the FAA means well but is going about it backward. The BQ screens out qualified applicants. He said they should first assess aptitude, then personal characteristics.

“It’s all good that the FAA wants to hire 10,000 people. What is not good is the BQ is too restrictive. The applicant never gets to the next step,” Rogus said.

Students are not told why they are not ready for the job, he said. “They don’t know why. There is no feedback. There is no rationale,” he added.

During the open hire period in February and March, 28,000 applicants took the test and only 2,200 passed, said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington during a recent Senate hearing.

“Nobody understands what this biographical questionnaire is evaluating. The rates of failure ... is very concerning,” she told U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx who appeared at the hearing.

Murray said the new rules are preventing veterans from getting jobs as air traffic controllers.

Some say the new rules are to bring more minorities into the job.

“What we have found is the group of folks who apply to the FAA for air traffic controller positions tend to be rather limited. In this instance, the FAA took an opportunity to do a broader opening, to try to get a larger universe of applicants into the program,” Foxx said during the hearing.

Local Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte, will visit the Mt. SAC flight controller program and meet with teachers and students Thursday morning, said her spokesman Jerry O’Donnell. She did not return calls Tuesday.

The test questions often provide ambiguous choices, Rogus said, with no objective answers. For example, Question No. 14 asks: “I would rather be known as a person who is very a. determined, b. respectful.” Another question in the section asks: “I am more: a. eager, b. considerate.”

Gregor wrote that the new test measures the job applicants’ characteristics that have been shown to predict success as an air traffic controller. He also said the FAA continues to consider education and hands-on experience.

Rogus and others say the system was not broken, so why fix it.

The Mt. SAC program has been in existence since 1946 and attracts students from Palmdale to the San Fernando Valley to Orange County and out of state. Twenty percent of all the air traffic controllers on the job today are graduates of the program, Rogus said.

He is scratching his head as to why his top students suddenly are not deemed eligible for a job with the FAA, especially when the agency needs to fill positions.

“It is baffling to us,” he said.