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FAA should revise policy that downplays experience in hiring air traffic controllers

It goes without saying that air travelers want their pilots and air traffic controllers to have as much experience as possible. These are not jobs where we want to see rookies who had good grades on a personality test.

Families of Continental Flight 3407 have valiantly fought for the new pilot training rules and, for now, seem to have re-won that battle. But now it seems the Federal Aviation Administration has latched onto another attempt to weaken safety, one that leaves the flying public scratching its head.

This time it’s a revamped hiring process for federal air traffic controllers.

No one ever said air traffic controllers have an easy job. The pressure is enormous. These controllers are the people tasked with safely directing each day tens of thousands of flights traveling hundreds of miles per hour.

Before the FAA changed the hiring protocol in 2014, the majority of new air traffic control personnel had served as controllers in the military or graduated from an FAA-approved Collegiate Training Initiative program that often resulted in associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

The FAA placed those applicants at the head of the line for openings. Now they are on par with people with no experience. The reason? The first step to getting hired is passing a personality questionnaire.

The new process is designed to broaden the applicant pool. The FAA says, two years in, there has been a significant increase in hiring of women and minorities – but at what cost? Critics say it has resulted in the selection of candidates with no experience. Graduates of rigorous aviation programs have been left without jobs, if they can’t get past the FAA’s new personality test, called the Biographical Questionnaire.

Officials say the test measures risk tolerance, dependability, cooperation, resilience, stress tolerance and other traits. It also asks about personality, education and high school grades, according to an article by Tribune News Service printed in The Buffalo News.

English-speaking U.S. citizens with a high school diploma and some work history are eligible to take the exam. But here is the troubling part: no aviation experience is required. Pass and you move on to the next step in the process, which typically means taking the air traffic standardized aptitude test, or AT-SAT.

Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., with bipartisan support from 28 members of Congress, has proposed legislation to end the FAA’s use of the questionnaire to screen applicants and to return to previous hiring practices.

It would again give preference to military controllers and CTI graduates. Meanwhile, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation is investigating the FAA’s justification for adopting the questionnaire and the changes it created in the hiring pool.

Broadening the applicant pool is a worthwhile goal, but there has to be a better way to reach the objective than by devaluing real-world experience in a difficult job.