Controllers might need more training

 - October 2, 2006, 10:59 AM

While most speakers discussed current training issues and new learning concepts at the Air Traffic Control Association’s recent “ATC Training for the Future” conference, one presenter proposed that tomorrow’s air traffic controllers should possess, at minimum, a bachelor of science degree with emphasis on mathematics, computer science, engineering, probability theory and interpersonal psychology from an accredited university.

Professor George Donohue, director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at Virginia’s George Mason University, suggested that today’s training dogma, which is essentially based on memorizing standard rules and procedures, will no longer adequately prepare controllers as ATC technology and its management become increasingly complex.

Donohue is no ivory-tower academic. A licensed pilot and former FAA associate administrator of research and acquisition, he led the 1993 redesign and upgrade of the National Airspace System (NAS), followed in 1995 by the development of the NAS Architecture, which has since become an international ATC benchmark. He has also authored papers on air transportation systems, including an analysis of the maximum capacity of the U.S. and European hub-and-spoke system and a study of the delays inherent in current airspace design concepts.

Donohue stated that research has now shown that pilots using today’s onboard computers can already perform tactical aircraft separation better than controllers. Unlike people, these systems, with instant knowledge of such parameters as velocity, acceleration, waypoint intent and required time of arrival, as well as large memories and fast computational power, are unaffected by high-workload situations while providing much faster and more accurate feedback for overall ATC.

On the other hand, strategic traffic flow management–which requires human judgment and inter-facility negotiation–will in the future demand that controllers are also familiar with sophisticated network-control techniques, including statistics and probability theory, risk management, engineering, computer science, data management and data fusion. Donohue emphasized that these new controller capabilities will be essential in the future for problem- solving and dealing with a continuously changing control environment. Future controllers must have the ability to “think out of the box,” rather than be hamstrung by inflexible, traditional procedures.

Stating that “ATC is no longer a ‘blue collar’ profession,” Donohue also noted that average controller salaries are “well in excess of $100,000 per year” and cited an FAA report on the New York Tracon, where last year the average annual salary was $160,536 and where 25 percent of controllers will earn more than $200,000 this year.

When actual controller time on the job–three hours, 40 minutes per day at New York, according to the FAA–is viewed in terms of “billable hours” similar to the structure in the medical and legal professions, then controller pay is “greater than or equal to typical professional salaries.” Donohue felt that the FAA must start to attract and recruit university graduates to form the future cadre of ATC professionals that the next generation of CNS/ATM technology will demand.

Perhaps because of the then ongoing press-release sparring between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) over their upcoming controller contract negotiations, the conference steered clear of that topic, and no NATCA representatives were in attendance.

Most conference speakers described current controller training programs, reviewed the trainee recruitment and transition process between private training institutions and the FAA Academy or discussed new learning techniques.

Several speakers addressed the question of replacing the large number of controllers approaching retirement age, but few looked beyond 2015, and only Donohue addressed the touchy issue of whether, beyond 2015, the system would require significantly more or significantly fewer personnel than the roughly 15,000 currently on the FAA’s payroll.

But outside the conference, one government attendee, speaking off the record, pointed out that the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office had forecast that traffic could triple within 20 years and suggested that tripling the number of controllers–who are already said to be working at full capacity–was clearly impractical.

Conversely, he stated, technologies such as controller/pilot data-link communications, the conflict- alerting user request evaluation tool installed at ARTCCs and required navigation performance procedures all could eventually lend themselves to automated clearances and flight-path monitoring. These techniques, coupled with pilot self-separation via GPS- based automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast and allied concepts, could greatly diminish the demand for human controllers, who would become system managers. He estimated that by 2040, the U.S. ATC system could be staffed by as few as 300 controller/managers.