Diversity in the Skies: FAA’s Controversial Shift in Air Traffic Controller Hiring

Every time we wind up talking about DEI and aviation, we get stupider. It’s almost impossible to have a rational conversation about a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers; about barriers to entry into the profession; or about what qualifications are necessary for jobs in aviation. Instead we talk about United’s CEO dressing up as a woman at the US Airways Halloween party in 2011 (by the way, he also dressed up as Taylor Swift for Halloween at American Airlines in 2015).

However there are some areas where we’ve made bad decisions in diversity hiring. I’ve written several times about changes that were made to FAA air traffic controller hiring, that excluded controllers that had actually studied for the job in favor of those who hadn’t.

During the Obama administration, the FAA moved to ‘off the street’ hiring with diversity as a criteria, passing over graduates of FAA-approved university air traffic control programs.

  • The FAA launched the Collegiate Training Initiative in 1997, working with colleges and universities to offer air traffic control degrees, and making their graduates the primary source for hiring controllers. This trumped the previous requirement of a high school degree and three years of (unrelated) work experience.

  • In 2005 the FAA Inspector General recommended adding coursework to these schools to reduce training time at the FAA’s academy. The FAA didn’t do this, and Congress directed a study of the move in agency’s 2012 reauthorization.

  • Instead, during the Obama administration, the FAA started an Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign which bypassed graduates. A decision made by the FAA, and not by the Air Traffic Organization, meant that both high school graduates and those with air traffic control degrees had to apply through the same program and pass both the standard aptitude test for controllers and a biographical test.

This change had the effect of bypassing hundreds of controller graduates. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) blasted the change at the time.

There are several problems with air traffic control. There’s been poor management of technology upgrades for decades.

There aren’t enough controllers, or enough training spots at the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. They don’t pay controllers enough to work at New York TRACON. And the culture of some individual towers is a problem, too, keeping out new hires and leading existing ones to be overworked.

There’s no indication that unqualified people have become controllers because of hiring practice changes. These hires don’t just have to go through extensive training, they also need to get signed off on before being released into duty. If anything, indications are that this process is too strenuous, not that it’s too lax.

Moreover, leaving behind qualified applicants isn’t why we don’t have more controllers. The FAA doesn’t have enough spots to train people.

I don’t think diversity hiring is why the FAA’s air traffic organization has problems. Still, it’s a very bad look that a class action lawsuit brought by Collegiate Training Initiative students who got passed over has uncovered some pretty bad hiring practices at the FAA.

Facing pressure to diversify an overwhelmingly white workforce, the FAA began using a biographical test as a first screen of candidates.

Meanwhile, minority candidates were fed “buzz words” to bump their resumes up to top priority. Apparently saying your worst subject in school was science served as a golden ticket. Correct answers to the take-home biographical questionnaire were given in their entirety. These questionnaires were later banned.

Remember, after the questionnaire stage they still screened for competency. This isn’t about whether controllers are competent, it’s about who was allowed to demonstrate competence. And people shunted by the process sued.

This was dumb. It’s going to become a bigger story, in light of recent DEI backlash, and because it touches something safety-related though it doesn’t appear to compromise safety.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary … your first sentence is right on . Usual comments have no answer to the problems they discern . Singapore appears to have the best result : supposedly every Singapore citizen is equal fair and square , and without controversy .

  2. Funny thing: Pre and post DEI mania, the actual law of the land is and has been that it is illegal to discriminate against anyone in making a hiring decision based upon race, religion, national origin, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc. It never has been legal to pass over someone in an hiring decision based upon any of these things. Even the dreaded white male has a valid cause of action when this is violated.

    Many folks are shocked to learn this given how rampant illegal discrimination has become in decision impacts terms and conditions of employment, as this article discusses.

  3. I remember when a poorly trained ATC almost crashed a EVA Air B777 into Mt. Wilson not far from LAX (December 16, 2016 after midnight), a screw up entirely caused by the ATC person.

  4. @jns points to THE illustrative case about the insanity of DEI hiring. The recording is available on YouTube and it’s terrifying that such an incompetent moron was allowed near a microphone at a control center. I dare anyone to listen to the recording and disagree.

  5. Affirmative Action has no place in any hiring or admission decision. People should be hired based on merit and competence, not the color of their skin, their ethos their gender. We are lowering the standards in this country in an attempt to be a social justice warrior and that just isn’t right.

  6. “the FAA moved to ‘off the street’ hiring with diversity as a criteria, passing over graduates of FAA-approved university air traffic control programs.” – Simply unreal. Why wouldn’t you hire the most qualified people? Sick of this diversity nonsense. Equality means being treated equal it doesn’t mean being moved to the front of the line over more qualified candidates because of your race/gender. The implication from the left is that minorities aren’t capable of succeeding on their own merits.

  7. @alert – funny how when Lee Kwan Yew retired it just so happened the next most qualified person to run the country was his son. And the most qualified person to run Temasek just happened to be the wife of his son. Even in Singapore patronage is real.

  8. Gary’s post makes clear people were screened for competence as always. Each of the extensive commenters who are characterizing DEI efforts to date as a plague of unqualified incompetents: please consider whether equal opportunity for all has previously existed, when vehement concerns are expressed that historically advantaged demographics may have a few instances where the tables are turned. Were we so concerned back then about equal opportunity?

    I am also for equality of opportunity, but with extensive experience that is not even close to true yet. Most DEI efforts are bare window dressing for business as usual, and most studies of pay and advancement controlling for education, experience, etc show extensive discrimination still exists. That implies historically advantaged demos continue to lock out ‘others’.

    I wish for all of good conscience to move beyond anger and consider these facts and the full picture before signing on to resistance against equal opportunity, despite the flaws in execution.

  9. When you hire someone based on the color of skin,gender or sex, great effort, is put into making sure that special “but equal” person makes it. The lack of qualifications get over looked. 75 the minimum to pass the test. so whats 5 little old points matter. This has been happening for the past 20+ years in local and state governments to horrible effects. Several towns in the north east have been sued because of this hiring process

  10. Gary,

    One thing worth noting is that ATC has a mandatory retirement age of 56. They also have a maximum new hire age of 30. This removes perfectly healthy experienced controllers from the job at far too young an age and reduces the pool of available new hires.

  11. After working in the FAA for 23 years, I went to the Academy and trained the new hires. I have seen this change the change in students and the rate of failure stay the same. The process has worked until the last 4 years. The FAA has some very big problems that need to be addressed. CTI students fail at the same rate as off the street. Security clearances have slowed hiring. The diversity requirement has not helped. Remember, we are responsible for peoples lives. Hire the best scores on the test and let the best controllers keep our sky’s safe.

  12. @Wesley, 56 might seem to young to force out controllers, but as I’m now 45, and just over 10 years until I am forced to retire, I understand the need to do that. I’ve been in the FAA for 17 years, and in all those years, I’ve witnessed just one that had not “lost a step” between 50 and 56. The rigorous nature of the job on brain function and reaction speed really starts showing in the 50s. But it’s also more than the controlling aspect. The decades of dealing with the non stop crap of working for the FAA takes a toll on desire to keep working past retirement eligibility.

  13. ATC is about wide perception and pre planning and not getting tunnel vision. A lot of this is similar to driving a car. Some drivers can see 10 cars ahead and predict when to change lanes or slow down, and other drivers are always “surprised” and make reactionary decisions or moves.

    The drivers who see ahead will be far more likely to be successful ATC versus those who are always surprised or make more “panic” driving decisions.

    I actually think that people who play video games where they need to make dynamic decisions and successfully do so would be better candidates than others. This could be tested by creating such “games” and seeing the success rate based on scores in such games. It’s all about seeing the big picture versus getting tunnel vision. But you need some brains too, not only be good at video games.

    The opposing side would say more males than females play video games and thus the outcome is skewed. But this isn’t about playing video games, it’s about seeing the entire picture and predicting all the multiple conflicts versus just seeing 1 or 2.

    Another issue is nepotism, this gets highlighted frequently. It is a fact there are a high amount of ATC who have family in ATC. But a different way to view this “issue” is that someone who has a relative who is ATC may be getting mentored along the way. The ATC might be able to spot potential in this individual by the way they pre-plan in thinking or the way they drive. The ATC can then guide these individuals by sharing the work experience and if they think ATC could be a good fit they could share the path to entry at an early age so they have 10+ years to apply versus only a few years for people who discover ATC in their late 20’s. Essentially it could be like a pre screening, if a current ATC has a relative who is obviously reactionary versus proactive then they likely would know this individual would fail in the job and therefore not suggest the job to them. Conversely if they see the potential they might encourage them to apply and give them pointers so ensure success, which is a win win for the system but looks like straight nepotism. But this type of nepotism is still skill based, it’s not like you inherit a job you suck at. There are some people in the field who got the job because of a relative in a high place and they are a terrible ATC, but I would say this is the minority kind of nepotism.

    ATC needs good people no matter their background or sex or family employment. Whoever is the best should get the job. And I believe a 20th century style video game could screen out many duds. No I did not mean 21st century, I mean a simple Pac-Man style game where you choose left/right or up/down to resolve conflicts. If you can’t even do that then you won’t be able to do that in real life plus learn all the airspace and the SID and STARS and Minimums Vectoring Altitudes and rules that come with the job.

  14. For many years ATC’s have been able to perform at extremely high levels. Many of these men and women hold a high school diploma and maybe some work or military experience but no “college” experience. It worked pretty well until the FAA became poorly managed and did not move to replace controllers fast enough. With controllers aging out and not enough replacements it has been an urgent need. I don’t think having a college degree makes you a good controller. Sure specific training in that area might give you a head start but it still doesn’t fill the actual role. Sure college graduates should be considered but this is a high-stress job that requires judgment, physical abilities, and the vetting process to make sure a person is a good fit. I believe that military ATC’s should be considered first if they can pass the mental and other testing.

  15. The perpetuation of skewed information continues. For what puroose. To rile upm divide, and assert afford superiority in the feigned name of equality. Disgustiing op-ed informed by cherry picking and anecdotes evidence by the continued use of the tool blaming the [insert President] administration, to trigger the anti-[insert President].

    Well, garbage is what informs the country this day, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  16. The biographical questionnaire had nothing to do with diversity. The FAA was conned by some contractor into believing that they could create a test which would find applicants with the right personality to succeed in ATC training. It was basically of a live with those old Facebook, “Which ninja turtle are you?” quizzes.

    The FAA’s major problem is that, having lost their entire controller workforce (save a few hundred scabs) in 1981, and with controllers eligible to retire at any age once they’ve reached 25 years of service, they needed to start a major hiring push in the mid-90’s to stay staffed with experienced people through those retirements.

    They didn’t, and here we are.

  17. @Andrew M
    Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s elder son, IS arguably the most qualified person to run Singapore, which is widely regarded as the most well-run country in the world. Can you think of a more qualified person? Now, he obviously had a better opportunity to demonstrate his competence in that regard than anyone else. Also remember he didn’t become Primer Minister right after his father (another person, Goh Chok Tong, served as Prime Minister for 14 years between the two Lee’s).

    On the topic of equal opportunity, only total anonymity among job applicants (for any job) will ensure it. If job applicants’ names are blanked out from their resumes, and if job interviews are conducted virtually without interviewees’ faces shown, then no race, gender, nepotism (or types of patronage) would matter.

  18. @Tony We’ll never know if there was someone more qualified because the PAP didn’t have a competitive internal selection process and the PAP routinely rigs elections so no outside party had a chance to offer someone more competent. And I assume you know Goh was simply a seat warmer so Lee the elder could to continue to rule things from behind the scenes. I also notice you didn’t even bother defending the Lee the younger appointing his wife to be head of Temasek (from which she proceeded to earn below market returns, yet was never fired). Some meritocracy.

  19. Sadly, there is inherent racism in today’s conversation. DEI is the new dog whistle, replacing the “Welfare Queen” of decades past. In this view: any person of color hired in any company that has a DEI program is inherently inferior.

    Interestingly, whenever anything bad happens it must be the fault of DEI. Even though the vast majority of employees and almost every single leader is a white man.

    White men at Boeing made decisions that gutted the company, ruined quality control, which lead to 2 planes crashing and a plug blowing out of their plane? Must be a DEI issue.

    White men at Southwest made decisions that lead to completely inferior scheduling systems which lead to last year’s major disruption in flights. Must be DEI

    The ATC is a mess. Almost everyone is white. Yep… DEI.

    I am an alum of some of the best academic institutions on Earth. I saw first hand who didn’t belong. It wasn’t the almost non-existent DEI admissions. It was the Legacy admissions.

    You want to fix America: End Legacy admissions for everyone at colleges.

    We live in a fake meritocracy where nepotism rules the land. Let’s end nepotism. (examples from Right and Left: Donald Trump. Chelsea Clinton. George Bush II)

    We should not hire substandard people under any program. However, we should give people a fair shot to apply and be seen in the application process. DEI programs that do this *correctly* can do this. DEI programs that do this *incorrectly* lead to reverse racism/sexism

    Most DEI programs do this correctly

  20. @Andrew M
    You’re correct that no one would ever know whether the person who is running the country is the most competent person in that country to run that country. However, the younger Lee has the track record for the last 20 years that compares very favorably to any other leader in any other country. Singapore has managed to avoid, or dealt with more successfully, crises that all countries encountered during those two decades. Contrast that performance with what America has experienced during that same period, and continue to experience. No wonder some Americans are a little envious…

  21. @Andrew M
    By the way, US, or UK, clearly doesn’t have the most competent person(s) running their respective countries for a while now.

  22. The right wing nutbags are always afraid of the truth and run from it. The last time the far-right was in charge, it didn’t end well for their leaders.

  23. When PATCO went on strike and Reagan fired the majority of controllers, who do you think filled those jobs? People walked up to air traffic facilities that wanted a job and they were literally hired on the spot. Those hires have all since retired and the FAA knew there would be a shortage but they stuck to their old practices and made people retire at age 56. Sure, there are those that want to retire asap but there are also many, like myself that wanted to keep working. I put in for a waiver, which was denied because the FAA said my facility was overstaffed even though for the previous 4 years we were all working 6 day work weeks. I am now an enroute instructor at the FAA Academy in OKC. The problem we have is there are not enough instructors to fully staff and maximize classes. This is due to the FAA not wanting to pay enough for retired controllers to want to teach. Last year they increased our pay slightly and we have since hired more but we are still below the amount needed. That is one problem. I could not agree less that separating off the street hires from those that attend college courses and allowing them to be hired directly. Why? In a normal class of 18 students, only about 40 to 60 percent pass. Some of the failures are also those that went to ATC related college courses. You either got it or you don’t when it comes to being a controller. I can understand the FAA’s position, just hire these graduates and train them on site but I guarantee that you will still get the 40 to 60 pass rate. That will end up costing much more money because these hires will be getting a salary to fail. A quick fix is to allow controllers to work until 62. If they want to retire when eligible, they will but many like myself would have not. Once again, we are doing our best to teach these new trainees how to do the job. Many are the new breed of young people that don’t want to work for it. They fail.

  24. DEI/Affirmative action doesn’t (have) to mean promoting less-qualified people based on their race/gender/etc. It just means not assuming that the white male is more qualified, and making a conscious effort to find better-qualified candidates who don’t happen to look like the workforce you currently have.

  25. It is, for example, entirely possible that a person with good spatial awareness who you hire off the street will make a better ATC than someone whose parents could afford to send them to ATC school.

  26. @LadyOlives

    Librards projecting again.
    The dei issue shows that the right is about the truth.

  27. @Christopher Raehl

    You just proved it’s a racist policy.

    I’m so happy woke, dei and esg is being rejected by society and the legal system. It’s the only real “systemic racism” that actually still exists.

    It’s over.

  28. I don’t think anyone really wants to get to the hard data in these situations. If we’re so intent on identifying minorities for the input, i.e. hiring side (which I’m not saying is necessarily bad) why are we not identifying the race/ethnicity of the person causing each incident/accident. We could either put under-qualification concerns to rest, or realize dei (as it’s been conducted in several instances) may be reducing safety.
    This shouldn’t be that hard to figure out.

  29. NY Post article from Jan. 15, 2024 regarding FAA hiring practices.

    The Federal Aviation Administration is actively recruiting workers who suffer “severe intellectual” disabilities, psychiatric problems and other mental and physical conditions under a diversity and inclusion hiring initiative spelled out on the agency’s website.

    “Targeted disabilities are those disabilities that the Federal government, as a matter of policy, has identified for special emphasis in recruitment and hiring,” the FAA’s website states. “They include hearing, vision, missing extremities, partial paralysis, complete paralysis, epilepsy, severe intellectual disability, psychiatric disability and dwarfism.”

    The initiative is part of the FAA’s “Diversity and Inclusion” hiring plan, which claims “diversity is integral to achieving FAA’s mission of ensuring safe and efficient travel across our nation and beyond.”

    This is 100% real. Utterly terrifying. People will die from this woke insanity.

  30. @Merrimack Sailor

    The majority of those you listed are not for controllers, they are for general FAA positions. Secondly, there are currently controllers with missing extremities. Lastly, just another fool that doesn’t know the meaning of woke. I also would not be tooting your horn quoting the New York Post.

  31. Nice article. Some thoughts from a 30+ year veteran who hired on after the PATCO strike:

    1) OTS hiring works just fine. After the strike, pretty much all our hires were OTS. After we started hiring CTI grads in ’97, I didn’t see any meaningful improvement in quality of trainees or reduction in washout rate (as far as I know the washout rate at the Academy didn’t change meaningfully either). CTI was sold as a way to get controllers trained faster and at less cost to the taxpayer, since in theory they (the trainee) would be paying for some of their training themselves. These savings never materialized. The only change I did see was an increase in entitlement among some CTI grads. They figured that going to school on their own dime and graduation just made getting certified at the facility a given. Most got a rude awakening, and some never recovered and adjusted their attitudes and work habits, washing out as a result.

    2) Trying to ‘jump start’ diversity by giving minority candidates various edges (see: BQ) or lowering the minimum ATSA score for actual hires is a dopey idea. All you get is more minorities in the initial hiring group, but you’re probably going to lose them in the initial screen at OKC and later trying to check out if they didn’t demonstrate an aptitude for the job in the first place. Minorities who do become FPL/CPC have to work under the stigma of people thinking they were ‘diversity hires’, which is a shame bc very few facilities will check out someone who can’t honestly work the traffic. The key is to make sure everyone has access to good K-12 education to prepare them for success in whatever field they choose. You need to strive for equality of opportunity, not impose equality of outcome via arbitrary ‘diversity’ quotas. This is a recipe for mediocrity.

    3) The FAA’s latest Bright Idea of allowing CTI grads to bypass the Academy completely and go straight to field facilities is extremely risky. They’re better off increasing the capacity of the Academy by running double shifts and hiring more instructors like we did in the early 80s after the PATCO strike.

  32. The FAA has not figured it out when it comes to hiring. The joke goes, it takes three things to become an Air Traffic controller. Too bad the FAA doesn’t know what those are.
    20 years in the the FAA, 5 years with contractors, SERCO and Midwest. Then 10 years teaching at the Academy. Fun times at Academy Tower.
    I have seen so many students come and go. It is true, either you have it or you don’t. Diversity will take care of itself if you just hire the highest scores. What they need to stop is the back door family students. Just because your Dad is a sup at JFK or LAX, doesn’t mean you have the ability to work airplanes. All those Center training failures have the same rate of failure in the field. The FAA just needs to start hiring more people and let the process work.

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