FAA Research Changed after Air Controller Strike / Selection Process Improved; More Recruits Have Higher Academic Achievement

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of four columns on Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center operations outside the academy for air traffic controllers and their effect on Oklahoma City's economy.

There could hardly have been a more traumatic event for the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center than the 1981 strike by the air traffic controllers.

The "stress" of directing the nation's commercial aircraft into airports throughout the country under various weather conditions became a national issue.

At the same time, the demand increased rapidly for more and better qualified air traffic controllers. Traffic has increased, while navigation and communications systems have become more complex.

Not surprisingly, there has been occasional Congressional criticism of the selection and training at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy based on the desire to quickly replace the fired controllers. Much of the burden of providing statistically-based information in response to the criticism has fallen on the Aviation Psychology Laboratory of the Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City.

This response has been to emphasize the quality of training and success in sorting out the best qualified trainees, said Dr. William E. Collins, supervisor of the phsychology laboratory since the early 1960s. As a result, significant changes have been made in the research.

"Since the strike," said Collins, "the agency has been more interested in research on all aspects of human resource management, especially with respect to the controllers.

"Also, the characteristics of the controllers are changing. We are finding more people with higher academic achievement and relying less on people with prior military and aviation experience.

"This indicates our selection process is changing. We are getting better at finding the right kind of people for this kind of dynamic agency."

These developments have resulted in increased study of the Civil Aeromedical Institute operations by aviation leaders from all over the world. Collins pointed out three major factors:

- Before the strike, about 70 percent of the students passed. Since the strike, about 14,500 air traffic controller students have entered the academy, and about 8,400 have passed - or about 58 to 60 percent - indicating higher training standards.

- Before the strike, about 40 percent of those entering the acadamy had college degrees. That is up to 50 percent.

- Before the strike, about two-thirds had aviation experience, primarily in the military. Now, that has been reversed, with only about one-third having prior aviation experience.

All this has a major impact on the economy of Oklahoma City, beause the academy has become woven into our economy. With the number of overall academy students increasing to 15,000 this fall, including air controller and other students, the direct impact is expected to reach $41 million a year.

However, the growth of methods in selecting, training and supporting air traffic controllers goes much farther back than the strike of 1981.

In the 1960s, said Collins, the concentration was more on the physiological factors, such as space disorientation, visual problems, depth perception, hearing and speech problems.

Aptitude tests were used in the early 1960s for selection. Also, the academy went through cycles of whether to pass or fail students, or try to train them until they finally made it.

"Some students took training over and over, until they finally learned well enough to be sent to a field facility," said Collins. "As a result, we sometimes actually had controllers who had a lot of training but were less qualified than if we had taken only those who passed. So in recent years, we have used the academy pass-fail system."

During the mid-1970s, the emphasis moved toward pass-fail training. …