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The Human Element in the ATM Equation

Air Traffic Management (ATM) covers airspace management, air traffic flow and capacity management and air traffic control. These are the processes, procedures and resources which collectively contribute to the safe management of aircraft operations in the air and on the ground. Current and developing trends in ATM provide an exciting and challenging glimpse into the future of managing air traffic. Essentially, the aim is to enable higher efficiency in the management of air traffic, i.e., handling more aircraft in a given airspace without compromising safedty.

The progress of ATM in the last decade has been brisk. This was made possible through advancements in communication, navigation and surveillance equipment, which resulted in greater efficiency and safety. However, it will be pointless to have the best equipment, processes and procedures, if the human interface in the equation is not up to the mark.

Keeping the Skies Safe

Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) play an important role in the ATM equation. They keep the skies safe by ensuring thataircraft are adequately separated from each other, while operating at or near optimum levels for economy, and at or near on-time schedule.

Known to communicate in their calm voices, ATCOs provide the assurance of safety and security to the pilots who are responsible for the thousands of human lives and millions of dollars’ worth of assets in their aircraft. In a fast-paced setting, each ATCO provides flight information, air traffic advisories and air traffic control guidance within the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR). When required, ATCOs also alert appropriate organisations to assist aircraft in need of search and rescue aid.

Air traffic control is without doubt a very demanding and stressful job. ATCOs are specially selected, trained and rated for the job. Additionally, ATCOs need to pass the Class 3 medical examination before they can be issued with an Air Traffic Controller licence. Training for ATCOs is conducted at the Singapore Aviation Academy and it would take about four years for a trainee ATCO to become a full-fledged controller.

So what does it take to be an ATCO? Here are some of the key characteristics an ATCO must possess:

Situational and spatial awareness — The ability to take in two-dimensional data and mentally build up a three-dimensional visualisation of where each aircraft is relative to the others. The ability to foresee any potential conflicts out of this construction is one of the many traits that an ATCO must possess.
Simultaneous capacity or multi-tasking abilities — The ability to work with equipment, read instruments, transmit, hear readback transmissions and write simultaneously is just part of the routine of ATCOs on duty.

Memory retention — The task of controlling aircraft requires ATCOs to remember lots of information, for example, different separation standards minima, flight level allocation, time and/or speed restrictions, ICAO codes, callsigns and waypoints. Although these tasks may be aided by memory joggers such as strip markings, the multiplicity of air traffic control tasks competing for attention can easily distract one’s attention and interfere with the ability to remember.

Complying with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or Regulations

Aviation is a highly regulated industry, which requires adherence to SOPs or regulations to maintain safety. Regulations are the products of manyyears of industry experience and conventional wisdom and are undoubtedly superior to any single person’s judgement.

Making decisions under pressure — ATCOs need to be mentally alert and make splitsecond decisions as they work in a fast moving environment. An aircraft can travel at high speed covering up to eight miles a minute and any hesitation or indecisiveness on the part of the controller may bring the conflicting aircraft dangerously close to one another.

Taking charge — “Control” can only be effective if air traffic controllers exercise the privileges of their licences authoritatively. Being resolute and firm earns the controller respect and gives pilots confidence in his ability to take charge.

Handling details quickly and accurately — ATCOs must never provide air traffic control based on assumptions. Rather, the controller should first determine the facts from flight plans, Notice to
Airmen (NOTAMs), information circulars, supplements, etc. Making hasty decisions, based on assumptions, can lead to dire consequences.

Visual-motor coordination skills — Controlling air traffic is akin to playing a complex video game, except that real lives and millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft are at stake. In this high speed and high-worth arena, radar and aerodrome controllers, in particular, must rely on visual-motor coordination skills for observing traffic and effecting control.

Teamwork — ATCOs must work together to maintain safe and orderly flow of air traffic. A blunder in any one sector can be carried through the chain of sectors. Good teamwork skills would likely provide that defence against the development of any of such problems.

Tolerance to frustration — Extraneous issues can interfere with an ATCO’s performance. Personal or domestic problems should not be brought to the workplace if the ATCO is to carry out his tasks effectively.

Emotional stability — Emotions can cloud one’s judgement and ATCOs must never allow emotions to rule his head.

Resistance to boredom — Boredom leads to complacency and this, in turn, can be a threat to safety.

By Sebastian Lim
Head (Air Traffic Services Safety Oversight)

Article was first published in The Leading Edge issue 03/2012.



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