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How diversity politics undermined federal air traffic control skills-based testing

A lawsuit that has flown under the radar for years shows how the Federal Aviation Administration undermined a skills-based test to help select air traffic controllers in an effort to promote workforce diversity.

Published: February 1, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: February 2, 2024 9:19am

The Federal Aviation Administration under the Biden administration has pledged to continue diversifying its workforce under its Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility goals. 

At the same time, a lawsuit that has long flown under the radar provides a glimpse into just how far the agency is willing to go to achieve those goals, even at the expense of skills-based tests for air traffic controllers.

In December 2013, thousands of students who had participated in the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI)—a program specifically designed to prepare individuals to become Air Traffic Control Specialists—were informed that their previous scores on a cognitive and skills-based test—known as the AT-SAT—would be discounted. Instead, these students would have to pass a biographical survey before retaking the cognitive portion of the test.

“Recently, the FAA completed a barrier analysis of the ATC occupation pursuant to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Management Directive 715. As a result of the analysis, recommendations were identified that we are implementing to improve and streamline the selection of ATC candidates,” an email sent by the FAA to CTI programs in 2013 reads.

What the program graduates did not know is that only 14% of them would pass this new biographical questionnaire, despite half of them having previously passed the skills-based test and met all of the FAA pre-qualifications to be referred on the next step to becoming Air Traffic Control Specialists.

Eventually, one of the CTI graduates, whose career was derailed by the biographical questionnaire, sued the FAA for discrimination in a class action lawsuit.

The lawsuit uncovered a years-long plan by the FAA to diversify the pool of Air Traffic Control Specialists after the barrier analysis concluded that minority candidates were hindered by the cognitive test.

The efforts to achieve increased diversity in physical characteristics came at the expense of many CTI graduates, which in the FAA’s own studies concluded were likely to succeed at higher rates than candidates recruited from other sources.

Concerns about FAA’s hiring practices have recently taken center stage again. In 2023, the FAA recorded 19 “near misses” at airports across the country that could have led to deadly air disasters. An internal review, conducted, in part because of these near-fatal accidents, found that staffing shortages and low funding levels were contributing to rising danger levels.

Yet, some elected officials view the FAA’s prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its hiring practices as a potential cause of the agency’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities.

Last week, Utah Senator Mike Lee, along with Ohio Senator J.D. Vance and Indiana Senator Mike Braun, wrote a letter to the FAA raising questions about the agency’s use of hiring quotas to achieve its Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) goals.

Highlighting the near misses and a system-wide outage in 2023 that grounded hundreds of aircraft, the senators expressed concern that the “FAA has struggled to fulfill its core function of keeping the American people safe while traveling the skies.”

“That is why it is particularly disturbing to learn that the FAA is pursuing an identity-based hiring strategy that places an individual's personally identifiable characteristics over their merit,” the senators wrote.

Increasing diversity in the FAA workforce has long been a focus of administrators, but the efforts were spearheaded during the Obama administration by the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees (NBCFAE), whose earliest advocacy to the FAA on diversifying air traffic control dates back to at least 2008, the class action lawsuit shows.

In late 2008 and early 2009, NBCFAE commissioned an analysis of data that it obtained from the FAA from its reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal division that works to uphold the directives of the Civil Rights Act. NBCFAE concluded from this data that the FAA was the “least diverse” agency.

The coalition then sent letters to the FAA administration alleging “disparate treatment” and “underrepresentation” of minorities, according to a talking points memo obtained as part of the lawsuit.

By 2010, NBCFAE had begun to build “a coalition of supporters from entities, outside the FAA, that possess the power to influence the FAA to do what is legally required, and right for its employees,” according to the memo. The first organization to sign up was Rainbow PUSH, the social justice organization founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson to advocate for African Americans.

In 2012, after letters from the NBCFAE and meetings with its outside partners, the FAA conducted a barrier analysis of the Air Traffic Control Specialist hiring process to find ways to promote more diverse hiring.

The barrier analysis found that the AT-SAT cognitive and skills-based test was a so-called “barrier” to African Americans, Women, Asians, and Hispanics applying to become air traffic controllers. In an internal FAA presentation, the FAA Office of Civil Rights recommended that the agency “revise or replace the ATSAT,” because it represented a significant barrier to diversity.

In the same period that the FAA civil rights division conducted its reviews and called the AT-SAT into question, an FAA-commissioned study found that CTI program graduates achieved certification as air traffic controllers at a rate much higher than recruits coming from other pools of applicants.

Later, in 2013, the same year the final barrier analysis findings were presented, another internal study determined that an applicant’s score on the AT-SAT test was an accurate predictor of how well those recruits would perform in training to become air traffic controllers.

The study recommended that the FAA continue to use the AT-SAT, prioritize test takers who scored in the “well-qualified” benchmark, and, if the agency needed recruits from the “qualified" benchmark, to give CTI program graduates priority.

Despite these internal studies, the findings of the barrier analysis took precedence over the continued emphasis on the skills-based, cognitive test.

Shortly after the findings that the AT-SAT presented a barrier to minority applicants, the FAA would work with an outside contractor to develop the biographical questionnaire that disqualified many of the CTI applicants.

The class action lawsuit, which was filed in the name of one of the CTI recruits who did not pass the biographical questionnaire—Andrew Brigida—alleged that the questionnaire was designed to deemphasize the skills-based AT-SAT test, while prioritizing more subjective measurements and weighted certain questions in a way that appeared to favor African Americans.

Covering a variety of subjective topics, like learning styles, sports played, and grade school performance in certain subjects, each question had its own weight, which would determine what value that an answer would contribute to a candidate's success or failure in the biographical questionnaire portion.

For example, the questionnaire asked the applicants to choose the class for which they received the lowest grade in high school. However, if an applicant chose “Science,” their answer would be disproportionately weighted compared to other subjects, like math and history.

The class action cited educational data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing Black students national average scale score in science was lower than any other race to allege that the test was designed to favor certain minorities over other applicants.

An email between FAA officials and the outside company tasked with designing the questionnaire showed that this and other weights were explicitly constructed to screen out a significant proportion of the candidates, in total, 70% of them. 

According to the lawsuit, the questionnaire eliminated over 85% of the CTI-educated candidates for air traffic control positions, despite these very candidates being the most likely to succeed according to the FAA’s own studies, regardless of whether they had already passed the AT-SAT.

Sean Nation, the Deputy General Counsel of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is representing Brigida and others in the class action, told Just the News prioritizing the biographical questionnaire over the AT-SAT assessment was “intended to alter the racial makeup of the hiring pool” of Air Traffic Control Specialists.

“In air traffic control where there is zero opportunity for failure, the focus should be on purely merit based hiring. Efforts to alter racial makeup is the lowest priority. The highest priority must be safety and efficacy,” Nation said.

In 2019, Congress took action and ended the use of biographical questionnaires for air traffic controller recruitment. Yet, the FAA has not been deterred in its push to diversify the workforce, with new plans to implement diversity quotas under the Biden Administration.

In a case referenced by the Senators in their letter last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently implemented a recruitment quota for 3% of the FAA workforce to identify as an individual with a “targeted disability,” according to the letter.

This includes individuals who experience total deafness or blindness, who are missing extremities, or have severe intellectual disabilities.

More broadly, the FAA’s strategic plan for 2022 to 2026 emphasizes the need for the agency to “rethink” its hiring practices to ensure a workforce that more closely resembles broader U.S. demographics. But, what lengths will the FAA go to to bring diversity to its ranks? According to the plan, it will “reevaluate the skills” needed for an FAA employee and “refine the interview process,” to meet its hiring goals.

Given how the FAA has “refined the interview process” in the past to disfavor skills-based testing, the concerns from Senate Republicans appear to be well-founded.

The FAA did not answer questions from Just the News about the past implementation of the biographical survey, its current diversity plans, or about how the current air traffic controller application works.

In a statement, the FAA told Just the News that “[one] of FAA’s top priorities is hiring more air traffic controllers, one of the most highly specialized and skilled professions in the federal government. We hired 1,500 controllers last year, and we are working to hire 1,800 controllers this year.”

“We have more than 2,700 trainees in the pipeline who are partially certified and working—1,000 of them were already certified in a smaller facility and are now being trained at a larger and busier facility,” the agency continued.

“The FAA is filling every seat at the Air Traffic Controller Academy, expanding advanced training across the country, and working with aeronautical colleges and universities to move graduates quickly to on-the-job training. We are also working to enhance the Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) Program to ensure graduates have the skills to immediately begin on-the-job training at a facility.  Upon graduation, graduates can be placed directly into air traffic facilities,” the agency said.

Under the Biden Administration, the FAA touts the ways it has increased diversity in its workforce.

For example, the agency has implemented a DEIA scorecard to track efforts to “recruit, retain, develop, and promote traditionally underrepresented groups.” The agency also touts its “Inclusive Language Summit,” which appeared to encourage gender inclusive language in the FAA workplace.

Under the safety section, the FAA achievement list does not mention Air Traffic Control Specialists or any efforts taken to address recent near-disasters at the agency.

An internal FAA report blamed recent safety concerns on the “confluence” of staffing issues and aging technology, all tied to “inadequate, inconsistent funding.”

“Although stakeholders in the aviation system continue to exercise heightened vigilance and utilize available voluntary safety reporting programs following the incidents in 2023, the current erosion in the margin of safety in the NAS caused by the confluence of these challenges is rendering the current level of safety unsustainable,” the report concluded.

Though the report recommended launching a “supplementary program” to prepare candidates for success as an Air Traffic Control Specialist, it does not make mention of any skills-based tests.

It does, however, stress that any programs to improve candidate success must take into account “demographic and economic implications” to “ensure diversity.”