The Federal Aviation Administration's school to train new air traffic controllers is operating at full speed now, one year after most of the nation's controllers went on strike and found out they were not indispensable.
"I think we've licked the problems," said Lawrence L. Bicknell, acting chief of the school's air traffic branch.
Those problems have included a little fuss about graduating a few people who didn't pass the course, another fuss about what is seen by some as a high failure rate for those who do take the course and the difficulties of adding 300 teachers and creating more laboratories to meet the surge of students.
Room has not been a problem, because the FAA Academy is located in the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, a sprawling complex named for the late Democratic senator once known as "Mr. Aviation" and a man who proved remarkably successful at acquiring federal facilities for his state.
When about 11,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), went on strike last Aug. 3 and didn't return, the academy was training 70 future controllers.
Today the average enrollment is 1,500, and it is expected to stay at that level for some time.
The school is operating with two full shifts a day and a faculty of 425, only 125 of whom are FAA controller/teachers. The other 300 are retired controllers, hired since the strike.
They are technically employes of the University of Oklahoma because, in a classic example of the federal government's new emphasis on contracting out, the FAA decided that the university could put together a faculty faster than the FAA, and at lower cost because there would be no need to pay long-term federal benefits.
An existing contract with the college was modified and, by December, the 300 retired controllers were in the classrooms.
Instruction, according to two students who were interviewed, has been more than adequate. Bicknell's description makes the course work sound like classic military. The lesson plans, the material to be covered, the time to be spent on it and the tests are standardized; the instructors are supposed to be interchangeable parts.
Historically, about one-third of those who enter the FAA's controller school withdraw or fail before graduation. That pattern has held since the strike and has brought the FAA criticism for not adequately screening its students.
A new air traffic control aptitude test--under development for years but not used until after the strike--is now in place. Seventy-three percent of the first class selected from that test graduated. But Bicknell said it is too early to tell if that percentage will hold.
"This is a tough program," a student from California said, "but it has to be that way. The teachers are helpful and seem to be interested" in helping students succeed.
He had been warned by former PATCO members, he said, that FAA instructors would be pro-PATCO and out to flunk new students. He asked not to be identified, as did the other student interviewed. "You want to just blend into the woodwork here," he said.
The student population at the academy appears slightly older than the average campus crowd, serious-minded and almost preppy in dress. There appear to be more women and fewer blacks than there were in the academy six years ago.
Bicknell said he had no argument with that observation, but that the FAA has not compiled statistics about the race or gender of its new students.
They are selected, after testing, by each of the FAA's nine geographical regions, then sent to Oklahoma City for initial processing and training.
Two basic courses are being taught, one each for the two kinds of air traffic controllers: those who work in the regional centers, such as the one at Leesburg, Va., and handle airplanes en route from airport to airport, and those who work in towers or terminals, such as those at Washington's National or Dulles International airports, who control takeoffs and landings.
A student either passes or fails, and it takes a 70 percent correct score on a series of multiple-choice exams to pass. The en route center course lasts 12 weeks, the terminal course 15 weeks.
Both courses deal with the things "non-radar" controllers do, such as handle radio traffic, talk to the computers and manage computer-generated strips of paper that describe the plans of airplanes flying under the guidance of controllers.
After completing the basic course, graduates return to their regions for assignment. They return to Oklahoma City weeks or months later, depending on the situation, for further training, this time with the radar screens. Radar training is not pass-fail, because a controller who cannot pass the radar phase is still a useful, skilled employe.
After formal schooling is completed, FAA officials estimate it takes between 18 and 30 months to fully train a controller at his facility, depending on the complexity of traffic patterns and the number of flights handled.
Last October it was alleged that some grade-rigging had occurred with the first class of students after the strike.
Bicknell attributes that to a clerical error committed in haste as the school sought to satisfy Washington's demands for numbers. A detailed check was run, he said, of the entire grading process.
"We found that seven people who had failed should have passed and that three who had passed should have failed," he said, and those changes were made. With the scrutiny and press attention the school has received, Bicknell said, "I can't believe anybody would be stupid enough to do something" that would result in unqualified students passing the courses.