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Trouble in the Skies

By Transportation FOXBusiness

FOX Business' "Trouble in the Skies," a six month investigation of the FAA’s new hiring practices, uncovered changes that may put the nation’s flying public at risk as well as allegations that the newest air traffic control recruits had access to answers on a key test that helped them gain jobs with the FAA.  

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Lawmakers are taking notice, in a statement to FOX Business Correspondent Adam Shapiro U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL) said. “The latest report elevates the need to dig deeper to find out what the FAA is hiding. What is clear is that the FAA’s lack of transparency and disturbing agenda puts the safety of our skies at risk. I repeat: it’s time to compel the FAA to come before Congress to answer for their actions.”  

Also uncovered was an FAA effort to promote diversity that discarded 3000 qualified college graduates with degrees in air traffic control despite their following FAA procedure and obtaining FAA accredited degrees.  

Trouble in the Skies

Millions of Americans are about to fly to summer vacations unaware that some of the air traffic controllers guiding their planes may have cheated on a key test to get their jobs.  A six month investigation by the FOX Business Network into the hiring and training of air traffic controllers raises troubling questions about the nation’s air safety and the men and women the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, hires to staff airport control towers.  

It takes several years of study to acquire the complex skills necessary to become an air traffic controller, or ATC.  It’s considered among the highest pressured jobs in America.  The path for new ATC recruits begins with questions like this, “The number of different high school sports I participated in was A) 4 or more… B) 3…  C) 2…  D) 1…  E) Didn’t play sports.”  It was on the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2014 new and controversial exam called the Biographical Questionnaire or BQ. The FAA says it created the BQ to promote diversity among its work force. All air traffic control applicants are required to take it.  Those who pass are deemed eligible and those who fail are ruled ineligible.

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In 2014, 28,000 people took the BQ and 1591 were offered jobs.  FOX Business, as first reported on FBN’s “The Willis Report”, has uncovered evidence that FAA employees’ including some within the agency’s human resources department may have helped applicants cheat on that test.

Air traffic control applicants take the BQ at home, on their personal computers, without any supervision. The agency’s web site says the BQ is “… proven to be a valid instrument for assessing experience work habits, education, and dimensions that are related to success on the job.”   Other questions on the 2014 BQ included,   “How would you describe your ideal job? What has been the major cause of your failures? More classmates would remember me as humble or dominant?   26-year-old Matthew Douglas, a Native American from Washington State, took the BQ last year and failed. “How does this relate to the job? How does this determine what’s gonna make a successful candidate?” he asked.

It’s a good question and one the FAA is reluctant to answer. The federal agency will not reveal what the BQ specifically measures or how the exam determines eligibility to become an air traffic controller because it is worried that would compromise the test.   But what really upsets Douglas is until January 1st,  2014, he was the kind of person the FAA considered incredibly eligible and gave preference in hiring to become an air traffic controller.

Matthew Douglas - CTI Graduate

Matthew Douglas is an energetic young man who had a good job working for Google Maps when a friend invited him to tour the FAA’s control center in Seattle.  “I was hooked.  The work was fascinating and I knew this was my calling,” he said.  Douglas decided to throw caution to the wind, left his job, loaded his dog into the car and made the 2200 mile trek north to the University of Alaska Anchorage, UAA, where he set out to obtain a degree in air traffic control. He says, “I opted for the UAA because they had simulators and a well-respected program.”  Like several other young men and women pursuing air traffic control degrees, Douglas borrowed thousands of dollars, $30,000 in his case, to earn an FAA accredited degree from programs the FAA calls Collegiate Training Initiative or CTI Schools.  The FAA created the CTI program more than 20 years ago to provide the agency with a reliable source of qualified air traffic control applicants.

The FAA knew back in the early 1990s, that it would face a shortage of qualified air traffic controllers as old timers began to retire. The FAA requires controllers to stop working at 56 years of age and the predicted shortage is now developing.  The agency says it needs to hire 1000 new air traffic controllers a year for the next ten years to replace those it’s losing to retirement.  Air safety and the U-S economy depend on it.  Air traffic controllers are the backbone of a system that routes 87,000 flights daily in North America and contributes $1.5 trillion annually to the US economy according to the FAA. 

Between 1994 and 2006, the FAA recruited colleges and universities nationwide to establish CTI programs, on their campuses, to teach potential air traffic controllers the basics.  At its peak the CTI program was offered at 36 two and four year institutions.  And until last year, the FAA WEB page advised people like Douglas that the CTI program was the way to become an air traffic controller.  Things were looking good for him when he graduated from UAA’s CTI Program in 2013.

Matthew Douglas earned a perfect score, 100, on the FAA’s old screening test called the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam, or AT-SAT.  The FAA says the AT-SAT is an eight hour computer based test that measures, “aptitude required for entry-level air traffic control positions.”  Douglas calls it a rigorous measure of cognitive ability.  He said, “There is time speed distance equations that you do in your head, actual control scenarios, games that test your ability to multitask; all skills that are essential to this job.”  His perfect score earned him the designation of “well qualified” a status in the FAA’s old hiring nomenclature given to anyone with a score on the AT-SAT above 85.  “Well qualified” CTI graduates were considered the best of the best according to a source at the FAA who wishes to remain anonymous.

The FAA used to give hiring preference to CTI graduates, like Douglas, who achieved the “well qualified” designation on the AT-SAT, successfully earned a degree from a CTI program and obtained a recommendation from the CTI program’s administrators.  Douglas had it all as he awaited the FAA’s 2014 bid for jobs.  It appeared, to him, that he was at the front of the FAA’s line to be hired as 2013 came to a close. “I finished my air traffic control program with a 4.0 and I interned for the FAA.  I think that I had a decent chance, absolutely,” he said.

But just as Matthew Douglas prepared for a new year and a new life, the FAA dropped a bomb.  On December 30, 2013 the FAA threw out his AT-SAT score, CTI diploma and recommendations from his CTI program administrators. In fact, the FAA threw out the AT-SAT scores and CTI qualifications  of an estimated 3000 CTI graduates and military veterans who were all previously designated “well qualified” to become air traffic controllers.  The FAA told them all to start over.  But this time, when they applied for a job, their college degrees and previous military experience would mean nothing. They would now compete with thousands of people the agency calls “off the street hires”; anyone who wants to, can walk in off the street without any previous training and apply for an air traffic control job.  The FAA’s only requirements, to apply, are be a U.S. citizen, have a high school diploma, speak English and pass the FAA’s new BQ, Biographical Questionnaire.  What Douglas and thousands of other CTI graduates didn’t know was that the FAA was planning these changes long before the agency made them public.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta announced pending changes to the Air Traffic Control hiring process in April 2013, several months before Douglas and the other CTI graduates were discarded.  But Huerta made no mention of what the agency actually planned to do as Douglas and his CTI classmates were preparing to graduate. An FAA press release issued in April 2013 says, “Administrator Michael Huerta has made an historic commitment to transform the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) into a more diverse and inclusive workplace that reflects, understands, and relates to the diverse customers we serve.”

FAA administrator Michael Huerta

The FAA made those changes based on a barrier analysis started in 2012 which identified, “… four of seven decision points in the air traffic controller hiring process that resulted in adverse impact to applicants from at least one demographic group.” In other words, the agency’s analysis determined there were barriers for minority applicants to obtain the FAA’s air traffic control jobs.  The FAA then hired Atlanta based APT Metrics to further analyze those barriers and recommend solutions.  APT Metrics issued its report, Extension to barrier Analysis of Air Traffic Control Specialist Centralized Hiring Process on April 16, 2013.  It says that while the CTI schools appear to be a preferred applicant source, the program “…tends to have very little diversity.”  This is a conclusion the Association of Collegiate Training Institutions, a group representing the 36 CTI schools, fiercely disputes.

Doug Williams, a spokesperson for the association says the barrier analysis and APT Metrics report were flawed because they considered CTI enrollment at 4 year schools and failed to include enrollment data from two year schools, like community colleges, which have much larger minority enrollments. The APT Metrics report also took aim at the AT-SAT as a screening tool for air traffic control candidates and it’s well qualified scoring preference saying, “One potential solution to the issue is to replace the use of the AT-SAT…with a measure that can differentiate candidates without increasing adverse impact.” That replacement became the Biographical Questionnaire which Matthew Douglas failed.

As a Native American, Matthew Douglas is the kind of diverse candidate you would think the FAA wants and he’s in favor of diversity. “It generates a better atmosphere when you have people from different backgrounds I completely agree with it,” he said.  30 year old Moranda Reilly also agrees with diversity. She graduated from the CTI program at the Community College of Baltimore County, Maryland in 2013.  Reilly spoke exclusively with FOX Business about her experience applying for a job with the FAA and taking the BQ.

Moranda Reilly - CTI Graduate

Moranda Reilly is eager to become an air traffic controller.  She was the aviation club president at her community college, won the National Air Traffic Controller Association’s contest explaining the role controllers play in aviation and excelled in her classes. Reilly is hooked on aviation and now getting her private pilot’s license.  “I think it’s fascinating. This industry is a unique one,” she said.  At first, the FAA’s hiring changes didn’t worry Reilly who scored 86 on her AT-SAT, lower than Matthew Douglas scored, but still considered “well qualified.”  And Reilly had something Douglas didn’t; access to the BQ test and the right answers.   “I was shocked when I first heard it,” she told FOX Business.

Moranda Reilly says friends in the CTI program encouraged her to join an organization called the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees or NBCFAE.  It’s one of several organizations which offer membership to people of color and minorities who work for the FAA.  Reilly says her friends told her joining the NBCFAE, as a female applicant, would help improve her chances of being hired.  The NBCFAE WEB page says it has 1000 members and advocates on behalf of 5000 African American and minority FAA employees. “For over 35 years, NBCFAE, a nationwide network, has been dedicated to promoting equal employment for African Americans, female and minority employees; improving employee-management relations and providing an effective liaison amongst FAA employees and the community at large.”   Reilly signed up just as the FAA launched a new round of hiring in February 2014.

 

Reilly told FOX Business that she received a recorded voice text message from FAA employee and air traffic controller Shelton Snow a few days after the FAA hiring process started and applicants began taking the BQ.  Candidates were, and still are, allowed to take the test unsupervised, on their own time and on their home computers over a two week period.

Snow is an FAA employee and president of the NBCFAE’s Washington Suburban Chapter. He has recently been promoted to be an FAA Front Line Manager at the FAA’s New York Center.

Moranda Reilly says Snow sent her and other ATC applicants a recorded message on February 12, 2014 as they were preparing to take the Biographical Questionnaire test.  Reilly shared the recording exclusively with FOX Business.

Snow Voice Text Message:

“I know each of you are eager very eager to apply for this job vacancy announcement and trust after tonight you will be able to do so….there is some valuable pieces of information that I have taken a screen shot of and I am going to send that to you via email.  Trust and believe it will be something you will appreciate to the utmost.  Keep in mind we are trying to maximize your opportunities…I am going to send it out to each of you and as you progress through the stages refer to those images so you will know which icons you should select…I am about 99 point 99 percent sure that it is exactly how you need to answer each question in order to get through the first phase.”

Shelton Snow - FAA employee and president of the NBCFAE’s
Washington Suburban Chapter 

Snow refused to discuss the recording with FOX Business and has declined several requests for interviews telling FOX Business, “Journalists must stop contacting me.”  When confronted on camera by FOX Business about the allegations of cheating and providing answers to the test, Snow declined to comment.  On his recorded message, Snow discusses the screen shots and icons applicants should select. Snow goes on to refer to “one of my HR representatives” and giving them “the opportunity to sign off on it before you actually click it.”  The recording was sent to NBCFAE associate members when it became clear some of them were failing the BQ test.

Snow Voice Text Message:

“People have been getting rejection notices and those rejection notices have been coming after about 24 to 36 hours after clicking submit and I want to avoid that so what we are going to do is we are going to take our time and we’re going to make sure that everything we click on, and you going to even have to go back to your resume and make some changes because one of our members and I have caught something and we want to go back and want to fine tune those details…”

NBCFAE National President Paquita Bradley also declined repeated requests from FOX Business to discuss the recording and accusations that NBCFAE members helped applicants cheat.  The FAA rejected requests from FOX Business to grant interviews with FAA employees about the BQ but in a written statement about the cheating said, “No individuals have made credible allegations to the FAA about this issue.” Reilly says, “I want to talk about it because I joined the NBCFAE and when I saw what was going on, I knew that I had to stand on the right side of the fence.”

 

Reilly says Snow and other NBCFAE officials conducted workshops showing NBCFAE associate members, applying for FAA jobs, the correct answers to select on the BQ as well as key words to use on their resumes in order to be selected by FAA hiring personnel who were also NBCFAE members. Reilly insists that she didn’t cheat.  She failed the BQ. “It breaks your heart to work so hard for something and for someone to say that you’re not eligible because of a personality exam” she said.  Disappointed but not deterred, Reilly decided to do something about what she says she witnessed.

Reilly went to her CTI advisor with the recording she got from Snow.  The advisor told Reilly to contact aviation lawyer Michael Pearson a retired air traffic controller who now practices law in Phoenix, Arizona.  “I believe the flying public has a right to know this is going on. I believe the people engaged in this behavior need to be held accountable,” he said.

Pearson represents Moranda Reilly and several CTI graduates who may sue the FAA if they can obtain class action status.  As of now, they’ve filed an equal employment opportunity complaint with the FAA’s Equal Employment Opportunity office.  But Pearson suspects something more egregious is taking place. “You had social engineering in my belief, my opinion, going on.  It was driven by two arms of the FAA, two different organizations.  One was a human resources group and I believe there was another group for different motives were engaging in what I believe is discrimination against qualified candidates,” he said.  At the center of the accusations is the BQ which Pearson says is being misused to disqualify worthy job applicants like Moranda Reilly and Matthew Douglas.

The FAA, responding to questions from FOX Business, insisted the BQ was professionally developed and “…validated based upon years of extensive research...”  The new hiring process was implemented “…to ensure the FAA selects applicants with the highest probability of successfully completing our rigorous air traffic controller training program and achieving final certification as an ATCS (Air Traffic Control Specialist).” 

Applicants who pass the BQ and subsequent FAA hiring review are sent to the agency’s training academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Course work there lasts 13 weeks but it takes another two to three years, during which trainees apprentice at air traffic control centers across the country, for an applicant to achieve Certified Professional Controller status or CPC.  It can cost as much as $420,000, on average, to fully train an air traffic controller and the FAA tries to select candidates based on the likelihood they will successfully complete their training.   But, CTI School advocates say the old program saved the FAA time and money.

Photo Source: Reuters

Data from the FAA indicates CTI graduates complete their FAA academy course work five weeks sooner than off the street hires.  And, CTI advocates say CTI graduates are more likely to achieve certified professional controller (CPC) status which saves the FAA money since the CTI graduates complete the program at greater rate than applicants hired off the street.  FOX Business obtained a never made public FAA report that supports those claims. Studies of Next Generation Air Traffic Control Specialists II: Analysis of Facility Training Outcomes by Recruitment Source was written in October 2014 by Dana Broach, Ph.D. a researcher at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  The report concludes, “Overall, larger proportions of…CTI hires achieved CPC (Certified Professional Controller) status than did general public hires.”

The FAA refused to let Broach talk to FOX Business but called his report “inconclusive”.  His unpublished report however speaks loudly and recommends preferring, “…CTI hires over general public hires…” because it “… could produce more net CPCs (Certified Professional Controller) than a policy of equal or no preference for recruitment sources.”  It’s just one of several reports Broach has authored questioning the FAA’s current hiring procedures.

Broach co-authored another report last year which questions the FAA’s use of biographical data to predict training success; one of the reasons the FAA says it now uses the BQ. Using Biodata to Select Air Traffic Controllers, October 2014 says, “…the evidence for using these biodata items for controller selection is weak.”  The report recommends additional research is needed to validate items predictive of success in training.  The FAA declined requests to discuss Broach’s research. Moranda Reilly finds it all very troubling. “They just base an entire hiring force on biographical data and now they’re saying that it’s weak so how can you stand behind what you, what you’ve put in place?”  Matthew Douglas says it makes no sense. “Where’s the logic behind it? If it’s weak then why would you use it?”

Congress asked the same questions last year during hearings on the hiring changes.  The FAA has not yet fully responded but has said publicly, “Disclosure of the Biographical Assessment items and the basis for scoring and weighting given to each question would diminish the validity and utility of the instrument for the selection of persons into the ATCS (Air Traffic Control Specialst) occupation.”  Congressman Randy Hultgren (R) Illinois doesn’t believe it. “I just fundamentally disagree with that.  You might get lucky in finding a few people that are qualified and able to do this, but again what I’ve seen from CTI programs, you’ve got passionate people willing to commit themselves.”  When FOX Business played the Snow voice text message for Hultgren, he called it “cheating.”

Hultgren is cosponsoring the Air Traffic Controllers Hiring Act of 2015 to force the FAA to abandon the BQ and restore preferred hiring status for CTI graduates and military veterans who score high enough on the AT-SAT to be designated “well qualified”. “The biggest objective is to make sure that our air travel is still the safest in the world and air traffic controllers are a big part of that,” he said.  The bill also requires the FAA to let the 3000 CTI graduates whose lives were disrupted by the BQ’s implementation, reapply for air traffic control jobs even if they are older than the 31 year age cutoff. 

But the FAA continues to stand behind the controversial BQ saying it helps select, “…those applicants with the highest probability of success in the FAA’s rigorous air traffic controller training process.  Of the 1591 cleared to be hired in 2014, 742 have been sent, as of May 2015, to the Academy with 564 passing their basic training. The 24 percent washout rate is consistent with failure rates under the FAA’s old hiring guidelines according to a FAA source who wishes to remain anonymous.

Moranda Reilly doubts a new law will help her. “I will never be an air traffic controller and it’s heart breaking, it really is,” she said.  Matthew Douglas is more optimistic and he has a message for the FAA. “You’re toying with lives.  You’re toying with students who invested so much time and effort into this and you’re also toying with aviation safety.  There’s 3000 of us who are more than willing to do the work so if anyone wants to reach out to us please do, we’re ready, we’re passionate and we want to work.”

Additional reporting by Pamela Browne, Gregory Johnson and Mallory Edmondson

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