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Most air traffic control applicants fail new FAA personality test

The control tower at LAX, where many graduates of Mt. San Antonio College's aeronautics program might get jobs if they can get past the FAA's tough new employment test.
The control tower at LAX, where many graduates of Mt. San Antonio College's aeronautics program might get jobs if they can get past the FAA's tough new employment test.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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A group of aeronautics students at Mt. San Antonio College complain that a new FAA screening tool is shutting them out of careers as air traffic controllers. A dozen students met with Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk) this week to ask her help.

The FAA adopted the new test, called a biographical assessment, this year. The 62-question test asks applicants about their abilities, life experiences and work backgrounds. It also asks how they've handled various stressful situations. Only about one-in-12 applicants passed the test.

Many students spend money and time attending FAA-sponsored aeronautics colleges, such as Mt. San Antonio College in the San Gabriel Valley city of Walnut. The test is controversial because those students, who would normally have a big advantage getting into air controller training, are put on the same footing as applicants off the street who may apply with just three years of solid work experience in any field.

 The new test is intended to broaden the pool of air traffic controller candidates beyond those who attend the 36 schools that partner with the FAA, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a congressional hearing this year.

In 2012, the FAA and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice analyzed the barriers that women and minorities face when trying to get jobs at the FAA. It found only five percent of the air traffic controller applicants coming from the FAA partnership schools were African-American.

Mt. San Antonio College is the only FAA-partnered school in Southern California that is part of the Collegiate Training Initiative to help students prepare for careers as air traffic controllers. Students at Mt. SAC can take a group of 11 courses to qualify for an Associate of Science degree in Aviation Science.

One student told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that he earned high grades at Mt. Sac, as well as a high score on the FAA subject test, but did not score high enough on the biographical test to move on in the selection process. And he will be too old to enter FAA training next year because it only takes applicants age 31 and under.

Of 28,000 candidates, only 2,200 made it past the biographical assessment to be considered for 1,300 air traffic controller openings this year. About 1,700 openings will be filled next year, Foxx said.

The FAA says the screening will make hiring less costly and more objective in identifying people who can succeed in the high-stress job of directing aircraft takeoffs and landings.

The FAA is on a hiring boom because large numbers of its 15,000 air traffic controllers are retiring. Many were hired after 1981 to replace members of the PATCO air traffic controller union who went on strike and were dismissed.

The FAA says biographical screening to find the candidates that have the best education, aviation experience and personalities to be successful as air traffic controllers is a high-stakes endeavor. It takes about two to three years to train an air traffic controller 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.