FAA Research Changed after Air Controller Strike / Selection Process Improved; More Recruits Have Higher Academic Achievement
Nichols, Max, THE JOURNAL RECORD
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. A new test was developed for selection, and there were eight versions in use by 1981.
The development of the selection tests and experimental tests in training resulted in a growing data base, said Collins. With the help of that data base, there are now 16 versions of that test.
"We acquired more information about the biographies of the students," said Collins, "and therefore the demographics of those who passed and failed experimental tests.
"We get all the scores of the academy, and those contribute to the data base. As a result, over the years we have learned a lot more about what kind of people become good air traffic controllers."
In addition, an "airway science program" has helped 28 universities develop a major in this field. This provides a new base for recruiting highly qualified individuals, with good backgrounds in math, computers and electronics.
"One of the unfortunate results of the strike," said Collins, "was that those who left their jobs found they had few skills that could be used in other career fields.
"With more college background, this is changing. Also, we have supervisory training and management training for those who move up into these kinds of jobs."
Career orientation also has become a significant part of the training, said Collins. This amounts to education on what the job will be like and what the opportunities will be.
Part of the career orientation is education on how to manage stress. Also, this goes back to the selection process.
"Most technical errors by controllers have happened in times of moderate workload, rather than great stress," said Collins. "For the most part, an air traffic controller is monitoring moving objects. While he is fully aware of his responsibility for safety, he doesn't think about how many people are in each airplane.
"Nevertheless, stress is part of the job. Some individuals have more tolerance for stress. The air traffic occupation tends to attract people with that tolerance. People who don't have it often withdraw from training after they get a feel for the job."
Dr. J. Robert Dille, who manages the Civil Aeromedical Institute, says it can even be argued that some stress can be a good thing - that some people thrive on stress.
Staying awake in the middle of the night when little is happening can be a difficult problem for some people, Dille pointed out.
In addition to testing and career orientation, the psychology laboratory also tests air traffic controllers for job satisfaction and keeps track of operational errors and performance factors.
All this goes into the data base for better selection and for improving the conditions of air traffic controllers.
A new factor is a $12 billion FAA program for replacing the air traffic control system with a super computer-radar network. Computers will monitor the progress of aircraft, resolve course conflicts, provide fuel-efficient routes and avoid severe weather.
Humans will mostly monitor the system.
"As this equipment changes," said Collins, "we may get a whole new set of characteristics needed for air traffic controllers who monitor rather than control traffic.
"That could bring a need for different kind of people. We already are looking at this in our testing."
One of the most important results of the 1981 strike was that it attracted attention to the salaries of air traffic controllers.
A journeyman in Oklahoma City now averages about $36,000 a year, plus differentials for nights, overtime, holidays, etc. In some of the busier centers, the average may be as high as $44,400, plus differentials.
"Some well educated executives have looked at that," said Collins, "and said: "that's not bad.' "
With the selection and training improving and changing to meet challenges, and with international aviation managers making more and more trips to study the academy's work, the Civil Aeromedical Institute is becoming more important than ever to the future of Oklahoma City.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: FAA Research Changed after Air Controller Strike / Selection Process Improved; More Recruits Have Higher Academic Achievement. Contributors: Nichols, Max - Author. Newspaper title: THE JOURNAL RECORD. Publication date: September 1, 1986. Page number: Not available. © 2009 THE JOURNAL RECORD. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.