A FOX 10 EXCLUSIVE
PHOENIX -- Last year, FOX 10 broke the story about thousands of college students prepared to become air traffic controllers, only to suddenly get washed out of the program by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now those students have filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming reverse discrimination.
For 24 years, the FAA relied on colleges and universities to prepare the next generation of air traffic controllers through the Collegiate Training Initiative.
Arizona State University has produced hundreds of these students.
Two years ago, the FAA did a startling about face, suddenly announcing it would begin hiring air traffic controllers "off the street" with no experience necessary.
Anthony Fox, head of the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, told Congress about the sudden hiring changes.
"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."
Erin Hogan graduated from ASU at the top of her class.
"I scored 99 on the AT-SAT," she said.
The AT-SAT, since 2002, is the gold standard for screening air traffic control applicants.
"I have two degrees. Bachelor's degree in aviation management and a bachelor's degree in air traffic control."
Andrew Brigida graduated from ASU in 2013, ready to embark on a career as a controller.
He's the named plaintiff in the lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit claims changes in hiring of air traffic controllers amounts to employment discrimination.
"You have trained for four years to do this job and suddenly the government announces, ah, forget all that, we're going to hire off the street. Does that make any sense to you? It doesn't make any sense to anybody."
Bottom line, both Brigida and Hogan, highly qualified controllers, were washed out after spending tens of thousands of dollars on their education. And this comes at a time when the FAA is facing a critical shortage of air traffic controllers.
Former controller John Gilding says lowering the hiring standards is compromising passenger safety.
"If you're going to climb on an airplane and put grandma on the airplane and your kids on the airplane, do you want a well skilled, highly competent, talented person working that airplane or do you want some high school dropout that's got his hat on backwards being the person guiding the airplane? I know what my answer is."
The lawsuit alleges there was pressure on the FAA to hire more African-American controllers, but the percentage of African-American CTI students actually exceeded the percentage of African-Americans in the civilian workforce.