FAA Independent Review Panel on the Selection, Assignment and Training of Air Traffic Control Specialists: Final Report
Barr, Michael; Brady, Tim; Koleszar, Garth; New, Michael; Pounds, Julia. U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sept. 22, 2011. 62 pp. Available via the Internet at 1.usa.gov/naZInb.
In the spring of 2011, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt commissioned an independent panel to study the FAA’s hiring, assignment and training of air traffic control specialists (ATCS) and recommend improvements. This report, which includes 49 recommendations, is the outcome.
“The panel reviewed hiring sources, screening, selection and faculty assignments; instructor selection; training content and delivery; organizational structure; and professional standards,” the report says.
What follows are some of the report’s findings and recommendations.
Collegiate training initiatives and selection. The panel studied the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program, finding that “there are 36 AT-CTI programs around the country, each with varying capabilities. … Yet the FAA does not break down each school’s capability and further discriminate how in-depth the curriculum is at the different schools; all AT-CTI schools are in the same category. Failing to understand the capabilities of each approved school deprives the FAA of accurately assessing the full benefit from each of the programs.”
The panel recommended that the FAA track the success of ATCS candidates recruited from various sources. “The use of this data would reduce the total training cost to the FAA,” the report says. “The data most likely resides in a variety of sources, but it has not been consolidated, collated and studied.”
The FAA should categorize AT-CTI schools based on the strength of a program’s curriculum, the panel said. It proposed four levels for the training institutions, ranging from those that teach only the basics to those that teach the basics and all options — tower, terminal radar, en route and non-radar — with supporting laboratories for each option.
“Combining the methodology of evaluating AT-CTI schools and assigning a level to each program with the idea of tracking all selectees by hiring source (and, if AT-CTI, by level) from initial selection through full qualification will allow the FAA to determine the most efficient and most cost-effective groups to be trained as air traffic controllers,” the report says. “This, in turn, should reduce attrition rates of those selected for training.”
The panel could find no studies on the validity of the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) test battery given to applicants. “To improve the predictability of the AT-SAT battery, it is important for the FAA to attempt to correlate controller training success and failure with specific scores on AT-SAT,” the report says.
The FAA’s current methodology for candidate selection and placement is flawed, the panel said. Currently, it is conducted by a centralized selection panel. “Having been supplied with very little information, the selection panel is operating in the blind and is making selections that will obligate the FAA for years to come,” the report says. It recommends a two-step process: first, selection for training; second, assignment to a facility based on performance in training.
FAA Academy training and the facility assignment process. “It is widely acknowledged within the operational units that field-based training programs are struggling because a record number of inadequately prepared [FAA] Academy graduates are being assigned to their facilities,” the report says.
During the review, “opportunities to improve the preparation of new controllers became apparent.” They include the following:
“Improve the retention of basic ATCS
- knowledge by presenting the air traffic basic course material as early in the educational process as possible via online training”;
- “Decrease the amount of initial training conducted in the field by reinforcing previously learned material through a cumulative testing strategy and providing advanced courses for terminal and en route ATCS candidates prior to [their] reporting to [ATC facilities]”;
- “Improve the quality of Academy-based training by capturing additional performance samples during training; replacing the ‘pass/fail’ grading strategy with multi-level performance measures; and providing detailed Academy training records to the … facility manager” they are assigned to; and,
- “Incorporate performance criteria in the assignment decision by basing track and facility assignments on objective measures and using ‘just-in-time’ processes … to fill vacancies as soon as the resources are available.”
The report says that the FAA should “delay the track [specialty] assignment until after the candidate’s aptitude is assessed during initial training at the FAA Academy and use OJTIs [on-the-job training instructors] in this process. Given that different skills are required for each ATCS specialty, the panel recommends that the track assignment decision be delayed until after the candidate has the opportunity to demonstrate his or her aptitude for a particular specialty.”
Field training. After a student successfully completes the Academy curriculum, he or she reports to a facility for field training — a combination of classroom, simulation and on-the-job training.
The panel requested data from 32 FAA facilities about the OJTIs working there. Their tenure since certification averaged 10.5 years, and “at least one facility averaged over 15 years and several individual OJTIs exceeded 25 years since certification.”
The FAA provides no recurrent or refresher training to these OJTIs, the report says. “Establish an annual refresher course for OJTIs,” the panel recommended. “This course must include classroom exercises applying any new training techniques while refreshing competency on established key training elements.”
Increased use of simulators is important in reducing training times and costs, the report says, adding that the FAA has made progress in this area, installing high-fidelity simulators at Chicago O’Hare, Miami, Ontario (California) and Phoenix.
However, “anecdotal reports suggest that the deployed tower simulators may be underutilized because of factors such as distance, travel time, available training time remaining and faculty staff scheduling.” The report includes a recommendation to “continue to move forward with the implementation of simulation technology in field training. The FAA should consider the implementation of simulation of differing degrees of fidelity. A laptop-based simulation program can provide gains in training efficiencies at smaller facilities, reducing the on-the-job training time needed. While it may not provide the same gains as a high fidelity system, it offers an alternative [for] an outlying, low-complexity facility.”
Professional standards. “Recent publicized events involving controller professionalism have brought attention to the question of ATCS professional standards. … The panel looked at the training of ATCSs at all levels for the application of the concepts of professionalism.”
The report says, “The current training provided at the Academy does not adequately establish a true concept in professionalism. … Nearly all well-known professions (e.g., medical and legal) require an ethics- and professionalism-based course for completion of a particular study. There is no current requirement for a course similar to these for air traffic controllers.”
The panel urged that the FAA “develop an introductory professionalism curriculum. This curriculum could be added to the air traffic basics course as required curriculum for all AT-CTI programs. It would provide initial exposure to the code of the professional air traffic controller.”
It also recommended that a class on professional standards should be part of Academy training.
Organizational structure and responsibilities. “The panel considered how the FAA organizational structure supports delivery of air traffic technical training including … the stakeholders in successful delivery, their relationships, roles and responsibilities, communication, and coordination.”
The report suggests that various units within the FAA’s ATC hierarchy are stakeholders whose operations do not mesh smoothly. “Needed communications between stakeholders are either not formally documented or not accomplished,” it says.
A reorganization did not help matters, the report says: “The anecdotal evidence suggests that the realignment of the Air Traffic Service (ATS) into the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) included changes that have impacted training delivery. For example, prior to the ATO structure of three service areas (western, central and eastern), the ATS training functions were organized and co-located with other FAA units in nine regions, each coordinated through a regional office structure with a traditional vertical hierarchy that reported to headquarters offices. …
“The decision to place the functions in the service centers but outside the direct vertical report to the service units has evidently had unintended consequences on the offices which support ATO delivery of technical training. … This organizational environment reportedly forces service center staff to ferret out information that should be readily available. Such a dysfunctional dynamic between groups sets up the organization to be ineffective, with unproductive use of resources and ill-informed decisions.”
The report recommends that the FAA “clarify and document the specific roles and responsibilities of personnel within each office that contributes, receives or uses information related to provisioning of air traffic technical training, inclusive of the ATO service units, service areas, service centers and facilities, as well as any other FAA offices.
“Clarify and document the specific roles and responsibilities between offices that contribute, receive or use information related to provisioning of air traffic technical training.”
Journey of Discovery
Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator’s Fight for Safe Skies
Soucie, David, with Ozzie Cheek. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. 240 pp. Photographs, appendix, bibliography.
As the title implies, this is an autobiographical account rather than an analytical study. As such, it sometimes seems dramatized. But it also puts a human face on the technical and forbidding world of accident investigation, as well as offering the author’s view about what he sees as institutional politics and dysfunction at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
As a young maintenance director for an air ambulance service, David Soucie made a decision not to install wire-strike prevention kits on the emergency air medical service’s Bell 206 helicopters. He felt constrained by the budget he had been given and his company’s financial situation.
Moreover, the company had never had a wire strike.
And then it did. One of its pilots was killed.
“This tragedy changed the course of my life and set me on a long journey of discovery,” Soucie says. “I became a passionate student of the complexities and interdependencies of hazard, probability and risk. Over the following years, I was driven to learn more about how to recognize hidden accident indicators or precursors that could make business decision makers and regulators aware of a possible accident, to understand what those indicators tell them about imminent threats to safety and to find ways to prevent an accident.”
For most of his career, Soucie says, he was an investigator and manager at the FAA.
Why Planes Crash is a mixture of anecdotes, incidents from Soucie’s personal life, his self-criticisms, a large cast of characters, accounts of perceived back stabbing by associates, wisecracks, a near-death experience involving an other-worldly vision, and his allegations about the FAA’s philosophy of risk management:
“After [the U.S. airline industry’s] deregulation, the way in which the FAA approached safety improvements changed dramatically. The change was that the FAA had to provide proof that any proposed regulation would prevent future loss of life and that the benefit of the safety initiative outweighed the cost for both the government and the aviation industry. This was the same situation I faced … when I refused to put wire-strike kits on helicopters. The proof of their value came after a disaster. The FAA can prove the safety value of a proposed change only by waiting for a disaster to occur, which proves its value.”
Soucie also criticizes FAA internal operations, with statements such as, “I was learning that the FAA is like the sea, where fish swallow other fish simply as a way of life.”
The co-author is described on the book jacket as a “writer, producer and published short story author.” Indeed, there is more than a whiff of script doctoring in the dialogue. On the day he is invited to join the FAA, for instance, Soucie confesses to his wife Jill that he forgot to get her the diamond anniversary ring he had promised her.
“‘I know that,’ she said. Only then did she turn to me and smile. ‘David, I’ve had a front-row seat. I’ve watched you struggle with your conscience since [the pilot’s] death, and I couldn’t change it. I know you feel responsible and need to make it right.’ As usual, Jill seemed to know me better than I knew myself. ‘I’m just happy you’ve finally found a way.’”
There is no reason to doubt that the incident happened, but only a character in a made-for-TV movie talks like that.
Why Planes Crash did not strike this reader as offering new insight into the causes and amelioration of accidents, but a general audience will learn from it important risk management concepts and the entertaining story of one safety professional’s experiences.