Screwed by the FAA

A few years ago I decided to pursue my fascination with all things air traffic and become an air traffic controller.

At the time, there were three ways to become a controller: wait for a public job listing (PUBNAT) and apply as a member of the general public; enlist in the military and work as a DOD controller; or go through the shiny new ATC-CTI college program.

For a variety of reasons, I chose college. It was said that CTI students were given preference over applicants from the general public and had better success rates at the FAA academy than hires from the general public. The CTI program was not a guarantee of employment or a guarantee of successful completion of training, but it was marketed as a preferred route to hiring.

Since there were no more PUBNAT listings scheduled and the military was not a great choice for my life at the time, I enrolled in CTI school.

Midway through my college career, the federal government melted down and Sequestration hit. The FAA Academy shut down and there were hiring and training freezes. Times were tough, but the policy remained the same: finish CTI school, get on the pref list, and wait.

The FAA did offer a ray of hope when they held AT-SAT testing. I was further delighted when I scored a 93% on the exam, which placed me into the Well Qualified bracket of applicants.

However, this December, FAA sent out the word that they had revised their hiring policies. As part of this revision CTI students would not get preferential hiring. The referral lists and the AT-SAT scores were destroyed. I could have a degree in Sociology or Basket Weaving as far as the FAA was concerned.

My CTI degree, which I only got because the bureaucracy said that was the best way in, was rendered worthless by the machinations of the bureaucracy.

Another revision included a Biographical Assessment, or Biographical Qualification, as part of the application. The BQ asked random questions, such as:

Compared to my peers on a scale of one to five, I am (1) much less aggressive, (2) less aggressive, (3) the same in aggressiveness, (4) more aggressive, (5) much more aggressive.

Many of these questions seemed very bizarre. The application and the BQ would be reviewed by a computerized algorithm (no human beings involved), then applicants would be processed further or rejected based on this 62-question battery.

I was rejected.

Despite my 93% score on the AT-SAT and my 3.7 GPA and my background in aviation, the FAA’s random 62-question battery rejected me. And it’s not just me. It seems that a huge number of CTI students who were “well qualified” by AT-SAT are being rejected by this automated application process. DOD controllers who already have control tower operator (CTO) certificates are being rejected. I have heard from active controllers that some controllers applied to their own jobs as a lark and were rejected by the quiz.

It is my opinion that the quiz is broken, and the FAA is using flawed methods to hire trainees. The process seems to be excluding otherwise well-qualified applicants on the basis of an unproven 62-question quiz. Some have suggested that the algorithm was incorrectly programmed. Others suggest that this is all part of the FAA’s Controller Workforce Plan, and that CTI students are being de-selected because the bulk of CTI students do not meet the demographics that the FAA wants to attract in order to add “depth and diversity (p.44)” to the workforce. Some may see this as an inflammatory suggestion, but I would not be shocked to learn that it was true.

Let me be clear, CTI school was never a guarantee of hire. But it was supposed to give CTI students an advantage. It was supposed to benefit us and the FAA by shortening training time and improving FAA Academy throughput. And with no warning, the FAA pulled the rug out from under us. Now, thousands of CTI students are jobless, with useless degrees and massive loads of student debt.

If I had known my degree would have been useless, or that FAA was going to offer a public listing and base hiring on a poorly designed 62-question quiz and not retain the pref list or AT-SAT scores, I would not have burdened myself with debt and gone to CTI school. The FAA has screwed a lot of CTI students hard, and they couldn’t care less.

I am sad and angry about all of this, but I am not terribly surprised. The FAA is an inscrutable and frequently baffling agency that seems to act on signals from planet Neptune.

I just wish I wasn’t left holding the bag with a worthless degree and 40 grand in debt. All I wanted was a chance to try. Thanks to the new process, I don’t even get that.

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8 thoughts on “Screwed by the FAA

  1. I feel your pain man. I hate how the government often uses lazy methods to make decisions like this. I just recently got rejected by a flying board where people who work desk jobs got selected over a bunch of rated people. I’m not saying I’m the greatest flyer ever, but when you have the opportunity to “hire” people who have already exhibited great success in a flying job why wouldn’t you select them over people who have only flown a desk.

    The whole process is incredibly frustrating, and I just try and move on with the thought that it has always worked out for me in the past so I just need to keep working hard and it will work out. It will work out for you too man, just keep doing your best.

  2. What a bummer! They say government jobs are, in general, some of the most secure, but I suppose this is the other side of the coin: you’re at the mercy of people who have their own best interest in mind and whose event horizon does not extend beyond the next election.

  3. Come to the UK. It’s much MUCH tougher to get in that in the USA but it’s fairer and based on actual experience and ability, so it sounds like you’d be fine. And besides, you’ll be redressing the balance caused when Reagan fired all your ATC overnight and we Brits came and took over.

  4. Yes, it is incredibly screwed up. I applied too and and its terrible it seems none of us with aviation experience even got looked at. Do I think I am owed a job? NO. Do I think we should have a chance to have our qualifications looked at and let the FAA hire the best people? YES. It doesnt look like this was the case.
    In a job where safety is paramount and one mistake can kill people you should always hire the best people, regardless of skin color, nationality, gender, or anything like that.

  5. Sorry about your trials and tribulations. Everyone I know who has applied recently has been rejected for “biographical reasons.” These include recent engineering and math grads from major universities, pilots with ATP cert’s, and the kids of current air traffic controllers. If you *carefully* read the document below, and can read between the lines, you’ll probably understand exactly what’s going on here. Good luck:

    libraryonline.erau.edu/online-full-text/faa-aviation-medicine-reports/AM12-19.pdf‎

  6. Pingback: Letter from a CTI student | Airplanology

  7. I hope we are missing something here. If only 300 are to be hired this year (read that somewhere) and 4 or 5x that in the coming years, maybe this year is the diversity year so they can see if that is effective? I don’t know, but what I know is that all of the other current air force controllers my son knows were also rejected. They have been controlling heavy aircraft at a large US base for four years. The federal government invested huge expense to bring them to that level. They dedicated 6 years and receive low pay in preparation for FAA jobs. Anyway, write your congress person, we are. Also – what is Don stating about “the kids of air traffic controllers” why should they have any angle on a controlling job?? I thought we leave such consideration to Ivy League colleges, not public safety.

  8. Joe,

    The current air traffic controllers with grown kids (meaning, not the newer hires) were hired under the old system, with the OPM test determining qualification. It boiled down to the top half of one percent, based on the spatial perception/IQ test, ability to pass the academy (almost 60% didn’t), and successful completion of the thirteen training phases (about half of the 40% of the 2% who aced the test failed in training). The average IQ of a center radar controller in the early 1990’s was 136, according to one study I saw. Not surprisingly, many of the kids of these controllers also have IQ’s in the 130 to 150 range, or higher. They also knew what the testing criteria had been, and how to prepare for the test, which is something I didn’t know when I set out to become a controller, but it was a significant advantage for those that did know. In any case, prepared in advance or not, if you gave a non-“biographical” screen to the people I mentioned above, most of them would have done extremely well…not because some of them knew or were related to current controllers, but because most of them are very bright, capable, and motivated. The Ivy League comment was off base, it’s not even remotely similar to that. As for public safety…if public safety were still the main consideration, I’m pretty sure the standards wouldn’t have been relaxed so much for the last 7 years of hiring. Safety comes at a cost, and under GB2, they decided we were “too safe.” They do claim that we are transitioning to an “operator” job though, and that the spatial perception, quick math skills, and rapid processing of information won’t be as important as it once was, since the computers will be doing the majority of tasks that controllers have historically done. Safer or not, it’s coming.

    There are going to be a lot more than 300 controllers hired. There is a short-term deficit of about 6000, and there will need to be an additional number hired to account for attrition. By the way, air force controllers have historically washed out of the en route centers at about the same rate as off-the-street hires (around 50%), but they check out at a lot higher rate in the towers and approach controls.

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