A room filled with anxious airmen questioned the chief of the Air Force's Enlisted Force Policy Branch at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference over possible problems with the planned changes to the Enlisted Performance Reports and promotion system.

Chief Master Sgt. Brandy Petzel outlined the new EPR changes that will roll out over the next 18 months before fielding questions weighing on airmen's minds worried that qualified airmen might not receive the proper recognition under the new performance reviews.

The Air Force's Weighted Airman Promotion System will see the most substantial changes as the service plans to start scaling back on the points associated with time-in-service and time-in-grade, eventually eliminating them as factors.

The changes are aimed at eliminating the prevalence of "Firewall 5s" across the service with nearly all airmen receiving the highest ratings from their supervisors. The grade inflation has occurred as commanders look to protect their airmen in the performance system that severely punishes airmen who receive even a "4" on the 1-5 scale.

Air Force leaders also wanted to halt the practice of awarding a sizeable number of promotion points to people based on how long they've been in uniform or in their current grade.

Instead, the emphasis increasingly will be on how well airmen performed on their jobs, based on their three most recent Enlisted Performance Reports. Until now the last five EPRs were considered, so it's going to be more about how have you performed – most recently.

The result is that EPR points for the Weighted Airman's Promotion System will increase while those for time-in-service and time-in-grade will diminish until, sometime in the next few years, they go away.

The changes will be applied first up next year in the first phase of master sergeant promotions.

After WAPS test results are combined with the EPRs, service and grade times and decorations, the top 60 percent of scorers within each Air Force specialty code will have their records sent to an evaluation board. Until now, only the records of airmen up for senior NCO jobs have met a board.

Petzel challenged the airmen in the audience saying these changes are needed and way overdue. She said the Air Force had waited too long to make the changes needed to combat the grade inflation that have nearly made the evaluations irrelevant.

She went as far to compare the changes to the EPR system to the Air Force's new tanker. "This is the KC-46 of promotions," Petzel said.

She explained that the changes will not work unless airmen accept them and not start to look for ways to game the new system. "I need all of you to embrace this," Petzel said.

One airman asked Petzel whether airmen in selectively manned units such as the Thunderbirds could have their careers derailed when airmen in the unit are stratified under the new evaluation system.

Petzel said these units should not receive special treatment under the new system and they will fall under the same rules as other units. She said those airmen will have to compete against each other just like any other unit.

"This is going to take bold leadership," Petzels said, acknowledging the fear from some airmen that grade inflation will find a way to seep back into the process.

"For all these changes, our Air Force should see this as something exciting," Petzel said. "We have been asking for these changes for years."

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at mike.hoffman@monster.com