A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan commission that investigates civil rights issues, sent a letter laced with references to the movie “Airplane!” to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), warning its practice of putting diversity first could get people killed.
“[I] write as a concerned frequent flier who has no desire to find himself appearing as ‘Victim No. 6’ in accounts of an airplane disaster,” writes Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the Commission, in his letter to Michael Huerta, the FAA’s current administrator. The statement is accompanied by a footnote, “See generally Airplane! (1980).”
An investigation conducted by Fox Business has found that over the past several years the FAA has quietly adjusted its hiring model for air traffic controllers (ATC) to de-emphasize merit while placing a stronger focus on increasing the number of women and minorities it hires.
Instead of focusing on how job applicants score on the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam (AT-SAT), an intense eight-hour test on the skills necessary for air traffic control, the FAA has increasingly relied on a new Biographical Questionnaire (BQ), which asks personality questions such as how many sports a person played in high school. The BQ is used to screen out applicants before they take the AT-SAT, possibly eliminating many people who could have scored very well.
According to Kirsanow, this desire to increase diversity among ATCs is both dangerous and likely illegal, because the FAA is changing its hiring practices on the fly solely to achieve a desired racial make-up. He cites the 2009 Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano, where the court ruled against the city of New Haven after it threw out the results of a firefighter promotion test because too few non-whites scored well on it.
Kirsanow’s letter also mocks Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx for his explanation of why the FAA has shifted its hiring focus, where he said that “the FAA took an opportunity to take a broad opening of the aperture if you will to try to get a larger universe of applicants into the program.”
“I don’t speak jive,” Kirsanow says, in another Airplane! reference (this one footnoted “See, e.g., Jive Lady”), “but I am fluent in bureaucratese, and this is easy to translate: the FAA didn’t like the racial and gender composition of the people in its pool of potential air traffic controllers. It is hard to imagine a non-racially motivated reason for jettisoning a pool of people who had already been rated as qualified. Maybe I picked the wrong week to stop using hallucinogens.”
Kirsanow points out that the FAA’s own research has found that AT-SAT scores are the only major piece of data, besides age, that correlates well with whether an aspiring ATC will successfully complete training and perform well on the job. In contrast, he said, there is no clear reason to believe the BQ will help improve the overall quality of new ATC hires.
“On the other hand, perhaps I am underestimating the predictive power of the BQ,” Kirsanow acknowledges, paving the way for more Airplane! humor. “Maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s experience with the Lakers was a useful predictor of his ability to co-pilot a plane – provided he avoided eating the fish.”
In the high-stakes world of air traffic control, where one mistake can kill hundreds, the FAA’s diversity-centered thinking is intolerable, argues Kirsanow.
“It is one thing to select sociology students based on the color of their skin,” he writes. “It is quite another to use skin color to choose air traffic controllers who are responsible for safely guiding thousands of people to their destinations. There is only one possible response to such lunacy: Surely you can’t be serious.”
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