December 06, 2023
As I may have mentioned now and then, there’s much wrong about the 2020s, but it’s also worth mentioning something right: We’re living in the golden age of airliner safety. The last fatal crash of a commercial flight of an American airline was way back in 2009. (That year could have been worse: In 2009, Captain Sully Sullenberger adroitly ditched his disabled Airbus in the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives.)
This is the happy ending of a century of grueling work by guys like my dad, who was a Lockheed stress engineer from the 1930s to the 1980s. Lockheed’s Skunk Works is one of the most glamorous names in the history of aircraft design, but what my dad did was not glamorous: He spent a huge amount of time staring at photos of microscopic cracks and worrying about whether the wing would eventually fall off.
When a plane he worked on went down, he and the other engineers would be on a 6 a.m. flight out to the crash site. There, they’d spend weeks walking the fields picking up bits of broken airplane (and also, I presume, although he never talked about this part, bits of broken passengers), so they could figure out how they had screwed up and how to fix it.
One meta-lesson that was learned was that the Federal Aviation Administration was too politically compromised to run crash investigations disinterestedly. So in 1974, during the paranoid Watergate era, the National Transportation Safety Board was made independent of the Department of Transportation on the grounds that “no federal agency can properly perform such [investigatory] functions unless it is totally separate and independent from any other…agency of the United States.”
Paranoia has paid off in fourteen years without a major crash.
Unfortunately, we haven’t applied the lesson of the NTSB to other functions of government, such as immigration. For example, in Ireland a Muslim madman recently stabbed multiple small children. The Irish government has since been trying to hush up its malfeasance in not deporting the criminal twenty years ago after his first arrest. It always strikes me that countries need their own National Immigration Safety Board to investigate egregious cases like this and issue recommendations to keep them from happening again. But that doesn’t seem to occur to anyone else.
Congressmen tend to fly a lot to get home to their districts, so they’ve often taken airline safety fairly seriously. For example, after the 2009 crash, which involved a poorly paid, inexperienced copilot, Congress greatly increased the number of hours of flight time that pilots need to become airline pilots. At this point, it’s hard to get those prerequisite hours without either being a military pilot or the kind of guy who loves flying so much he works long hours as a flight instructor in small planes.
Similarly, back in 1989, Congress had the Federal Aviation Administration develop with three dozen colleges the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative. This provided education for non-engineers in what you need to know to be an air traffic controller.
But you then still had to pass the FAA’s hiring test, the Air Traffic Control Selection and Training aptitude exam, which probed for “numeric ability, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visuality, problem-solving, and movement detection,” all good things in an air traffic controller.
If you then graduated from your trainee trial period, you could be working in a well-compensated career by your mid-20s—all by being competent, responsible, and dedicated, but not needing to be a 125-IQ engineering whiz.
Not surprisingly, America’s biggest demons, straight white men, are those most likely to love aviation so much that they make these sacrifices to attain their dream job of airline pilot. Similarly, those damn white men flocked to air traffic control programs at colleges.
So, as I predicted in 2008, after a moderate first term helped Barack Obama get reelected in 2012, in 2013 Obama let loose his people to pursue their agenda of Diversity-Inclusion-Equity (DIE).
White House officials decided in 2013 to purge the hiring list of over 1,000 graduates of the air traffic control course at colleges like Arizona State who had also passed the cognitive exam for hiring. Instead, it made air traffic control job-seekers start over with a new “biographical” test to “add diversity to the workforce.”
This was in response to complaints from the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees that only 9.47 percent of FAA workers were black compared with 17.6 percent in the federal civilian workforce. “Thus, the FAA would be required to increase their complement of African American workers by 8.13 percent to reach parody [sic] with the Federal Civilian Workforce.”
This is not a parody.
The Obama administration’s new biographical test was blatantly rigged to boost blacks and hurt whites by leaning in to anti-black stereotypes. From the lawsuit against the FAA filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation:
…a candidate could be awarded 15 points, the highest possible for any question, if they indicated that their lowest grades in high school were in science…. In contrast, an applicant was awarded only 2 points if they had a pilot’s certificate and no points were awarded for having a Control Tower Operator rating or having Instrument Flight Rules experience…. In addition, one question on the Biographical Questionnaire awarded an applicant 10 points, the most available for that question, if the applicant answered s/he had not been employed in the prior three years. Another question awarded 4 or 8 points if the applicant had been unemployed five or more months in the prior three years. Statistics from the Department of Labor indicate that African Americans had the highest unemployment rate in 2010–2014.
Even the federal organization that made up this absurd biographical test reported to the FAA that it hadn’t been validated.
So far, no airliner passengers have died from air traffic control DIE. But The New York Times has been running a long series of hair-rising articles about recent near misses due to bad air traffic control, such as:
How a Series of Air Traffic Control Lapses Nearly Killed 131 People
Two planes were moments from colliding in Texas, a harrowing example of the country’s fraying air safety system, a New York Times investigation found.
Why? There’s a shortage of air traffic controllers who make it through training, so the ones who do are overworked. The Times reports:
Yet training is difficult; many aspiring controllers fail…. From 2011 to 2022, the number of fully certified controllers declined more than 9 percent, even though traffic increased. Based on targets set by the F.A.A. and the union representing controllers, 99 percent of the nation’s air traffic control sites are understaffed.
A lot of industries were getting by before Covid by keeping competent baby boomers employed into their dotage. But air traffic controllers have a mandatory retirement age of 56, so the oldest controllers are now Gen-Xers born in 1967. The coming Competence Crisis is on track to hit air traffic control earlier than many other professions.
But of course there’s no mention in the Times of how the Obama administration sabotaged the old test for selecting the most promising candidates for training in order to hire more blacks. That’s just too off-narrative for Times subscribers. They don’t pay good money to have their worldview about who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys in any and all situations undermined.
Many naive people assume, after all these generations, that affirmative action doesn’t mean lowering standards, it just means what it was originally sold as in the mid-’60s: expanding recruitment to find nontraditional diamonds in the rough.
In some fields, that kind of expanded recruitment paid off. For example, American football teams in the 1960s started choosing as placekickers soccer players with weird European names, such as the Gogolak brothers, Zenon Andrusyshyn, and Jan Stenerud, but without lowering standards. In fact, the soccer-style kickers proved a little better than the straight-ahead American-style kickers.
But over the course of the 1970s, American kids learned to culturally appropriate the European kicking style. Now virtually all NFL placekickers are native-born whites who have played soccer. (Interestingly, virtually no African Americans in the 21st century have been placekickers in the pros or even in college. Some all-black high school football teams don’t bother kicking extra points after touchdowns anymore, always going for two-point conversions, due to a lack of anybody who would demean himself by learning to kick like some foreigner.)
It would have been great if African Americans had raised their average job skills as much as American placekickers have continued to raise their own. But after an early surge in the middle of the 20th century, not much has happened to close the remaining racial gaps in recent decades.
Hence, nice people have largely stopped talking about how blacks will, of course, be catching up real soon now. Instead, properly raised folk now rave about the self-evident benefits of diversity, which, as Dan Quayle revealed unto us, is our strength.
For example, a 2023 publication by the European Union’s equivalent of the FAA’s air traffic control operation, the SESAR Joint Undertaking, on how diversity will make air traffic control better at keeping planes from colliding, “How diversity can unlock innovation in air traffic management,” is a classic at the usual corporate sleight of hand of confusing demographic diversity with diversity of skills:
To mark women’s day, the SESAR 3 JU spoke to those active in the programme about the need for greater diversity in the air traffic management industry, recognising that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas. This is particularly pressing today as the industry embraces digitalisation and seeks to address the climate impact of aviation. There is plenty of compelling evidence showing that a diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation.
A footnote cites the celebrated McKinsey study: “Delivering growth through diversity in the workplace.” After all, if you can’t trust McKinsey to tell you the unwanted truth, who can you trust?
“We have an international consortium composed of highly experienced partners that allows diverse knowledge sets to combine and complement each other…. It is important to understand that the cooperation between different talent sets is paramount for successful implementation of innovative concepts and technologies.”
Granted, there is some evidence that demographic diversity means different talent sets is somewhat true in everybody’s favorite justification for mass immigration: ethnic restaurants. If it’s a really high priority for you to have truly authentic Eritrean restaurants, you are probably going to need some authentic Eritreans. Ethiopians won’t do, they have to be Eritreans, much less American foodies who have been to Eritrea and brought home Eritrean recipes. That would be cultural appropriation. (Granted, eventually most of the workers at successful Eritrean restaurants will be Mexicans…)
But the reason that demographic diversity correlates somewhat with skill diversity in running ethnic restaurants is because everybody has some kind of cuisine tradition.
In contrast, not every culture, to say the least, has a legacy of innovating the application of artificial intelligence to air traffic control. And yet, big organizations proclaim with a straight face:
She says the “obvious lack of inclusion and diversity” contributes to talent gaps in air traffic management. “We recruit for the skills we need now, not for the future skills” whereas the industry needs role models both at entry level and management level for digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), to find their way into the ATM working environment.
On the other hand, nobody, much less BIPoCs, has a long ancestral tradition of artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s not as if Eritreans have been coding Eritrean-style artificial intelligence systems since time immemorial.
For that matter, neither have Europeans. Still, reading Walter Isaacson’s bestseller Elon Musk, I kept noting that many of the brilliant engineers out on the cutting edge of the various technologies dealt with by Musk, that very white African American, have names like Andrej Karpathy and Benjamin San Souci, which sound as if they were chosen by The Da Vinci Code thriller writer Dan Brown to emphasize how European they are. Is this because Europeans have a culture of universal machine learning? No. It’s a fairly new field. They just tend to have aptitudes for new technologies.
Comprised of 12 women and 8 men, SYN+AIR has generated a novel future transportation concept that promotes multimodality through data sharing. Rethinking and optimising the processes of recruitment and development is key to securing research talent, which alongside performance recognition, contributes to team success.
I don’t know what promoting multimodality through data sharing means, but I doubt if women possess some innate women-only gifts for it.
Granted, there exist academic fields where bringing together demographically different people, such as husbands and wives, pays off. For example, my old friend John Tooby, professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, recently died. Around 1990, John and his wife, Leda Cosmides, were among the founders of the discipline of evolutionary psychology, which studies human nature from a Darwinian perspective.
Since half of humanity is male and the other half female, and we have to cooperate to create the next generation, it’s not surprising that evolutionary psychology has ever since featured a fairly even balance of men and women sharing their insights with each other. And it didn’t hurt evolutionary psychology’s long-term success that it was more or less founded by John and Leda, happily married parents. In contrast, many academic fads are ginned up by unhappy people in attempts to justify themselves and groom impressionable young people into being like them.
Mostly, though, it sounds like these women in the European air traffic control racket want to force more affirmative action hiring of less competent women at the expense of more competent men by handwaving about how diversity is our strength.
Based on experiences shared by SESAR project leaders in this article, diversity has become an indispensable part of achieving research objectives in these emergent areas. “Only diverse teams understand society’s needs and concerns,” says Marta Sánchez Cidoncha. “Diversity is a booster of disruptive innovation, faster development cycles and new opportunities for the air traffic industry.”
Is Diversity truly a booster of disruptive innovation and faster development cycles? Wouldn’t it seem more likely that diversity qua diversity gums up the works with employees needing to waste time on DIE training and DIE dispute arbitration? Isn’t diversity basically a cover story for hiring politically privileged incompetents?
There are a lot of trivial fields where we can probably afford Diversity-Inclusion-Equity, but isn’t air traffic control one where the acronym DIE should be taken literally?