January 14, 2024 - 8:00am

Several stories and tweets went viral this week calling into question the competency of airline pilots over DEI concerns. Critics such as Elon Musk have pointed to diversity hiring initiatives for airline pilots, assuming that standards are lowered for underrepresented groups, but federal regulations on pilot qualifications are still as strict as they’ve ever been, and diversity training programmes are still bound by these rules.  

But where DEI may play a more significant — and dangerous — role is not among pilots but in air traffic control. 

Air traffic controllers are badly understaffed and overworked. As of June, 77% of ATC centres are understaffed, and it’s common for controllers to have mandatory overtime, 10-hour shifts and 6-day workweeks. Controllers are manning multiple frequencies at once and often don’t have the bandwidth to monitor runways as effectively as one would hope. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) blames the problem on the six-month closure of its academy in 2020 and a two-year pause in on-the-job trainings. But the crisis appears to have emerged about a decade into an Obama-era push to diversify the industry. Under the Obama administration, the FAA scrapped its hiring process based on aptitude test scores and training in 2013 and replaced it with one that considered applicants’ biographies, resulting in an ongoing class action lawsuit on behalf of about 1,000 applicants who were passed over under the new regime. The biographical component gave an advantage to applicants who had been unemployed for the past three years, among other traits the FAA believed would result in more opportunities for racial diversity. 

The classes admitted under the system of racial preference are still occupying air traffic control jobs. From 2011 to 2017 the FAA reported an 83% rise in runway incursions — “incidents involving unauthorised aircraft, vehicles, or people on a runway”. Near-misses on runways have also become commonplace. There were at least 46 near-collisions on airplane runways in July 2023 alone; in some cases pilots steered clear of crashing into other planes with only seconds to spare. 

The FAA scrapped the biographical component in 2018, and it’s unclear whether the agency is still considering race in its hiring practices. The personality test component of the AT-SA test, which asks applicants if they like to attend parties and if they like to follow instructions, could be an avenue through which this is achieved. 

An FAA spokesperson told UnHerd that the agency keeps “extremely conservative standards” for avoiding aircraft collisions through air traffic control, with the goal of having zero close calls, but refused to answer questions about the agency’s use of racial metrics in hiring practices; she told me I would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain this information. 

Jim Peterson, a pilot with 30 years of experience, told UnHerd that it is well within the realm of possibility that mistakes caused by air traffic control could cause an accident. “I can clearly identify that ATC is understaffed, and they still seem competent, but they seem like in some cases, they’re doing too much,” he said. “And that comes at a cost.”

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.