Monday, January 11, 2016

Verne Latham: Federal Aviation Administration hiring changes endanger air safety

A passenger jet flies past the Federal Aviation Administration control tower at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. 



A shortage of qualified air-traffic controllers caused by new Federal Aviation Administration hiring rules is creating dangerous conditions in American skies.

Currently, about 11,000 fully certified air-traffic controllers keep watch over about 87,000 daily flights, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The number of controllers should be 4,000 higher, and the current qualifying practices make the problem worse. (According to the controllers association, 32 certified air traffic controllers work at Houston Intercontinental, 19 work at William P. Hobby and 71 at Houston TRACON, also known as Houston Air Traffic Control.)

The FAA historically has preferred to hire military veterans or graduates from 36 schools certified to produce reliable air-traffic controllers. But about two years ago, the agency opened its application process to anyone off the street, provided they passed a new biographical assessment.

The questions initially, though no longer, used to screen those who may guide the fate of your next flight included: "What sports did you play in high school?" and "What magazines do you read?"

If the public knew, they'd do a lot more than review the emergency procedures in the seatback card.

In a field with no room for error - one mistake is catastrophic - passion counts. But the FAA's decision to throw its application process wide open is driving down the quality of applicants. Instead of those who are so dedicated that they devote years and thousands of dollars to a certified program, it now can be someone who is looking for a step up from checkout clerk.

The 100-plus-question biographical assessment was intended to create greater equality in the entrance requirements to join the FAA. However, an October 2014 study by the FAA admitted that "the evidence for using these biodata items for controller selection is weak."

Some of the best students in the air traffic management program at Arizona State University, where I'm a lecturer, have taken the test and not scored well. Some in our program have heard of working controllers who can't pass the test. Many who would have been snapped up before the changes have been shut out of the field.

But it's not just affecting air-traffic hopefuls. It's also costing taxpayers.

After being hired by the FAA, air-traffic controllers undergo two to three months of in-depth training at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City. After graduating from the academy, trainees have one to three years of on-the-job training at a tower or en route air-traffic facility at an annual cost in salary and benefits of about $93,000. About one-fifth of those who begin the training do not finish, according to an FAA report.

Congress is calling for an investigation into the new hiring practices. The Air Traffic Controllers Hiring Act of 2015 has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., among others, to reverse the changes. Hultgren's last bill, the Safe Towers Act, died in last year's Congress.

Let us hope that it does not take a tragedy to rouse Congress to action. And action is needed soon: Large numbers of the FAA's 11,000 certified air-traffic controllers are either retiring or eligible to retire. Mandatory retirement is age 56. To be fully staffed, the FAA must hire, on average, 1,240 candidates a year. But it hasn't been keeping pace.

Lower staff levels means demands will increase on air-traffic controllers, making it even more crucial that those jobs be filled with qualified, passionate professionals. In aviation there's no room for mistakes.

Latham is a lecturer in air-traffic management at the Polytechnic School, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Article, comments and photo: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion

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