In 1926, the US Government drafted the Air Commerce Act, a list of basic rules upon which air traffic control in the country was built. Three years later, the man considered to be the world's first air traffic controller, Archie League, began ushering planes in and out of a single airstrip in St Louis, Missouri. Although these rules and the technology used to relay and enforce them have become considerably more complex, the role of the air traffic controller in the US today might not seem so alien to League.
As was the case then, the controller in the tower guides the plane to the designated runway, and gives the go-ahead when the coast is clear. Once airborne, pilots in the 1930s could contact one of a handful of receiving stations to help them establish their position. Today, after clearing the airport, the aircraft comes under the guidance of an en route controller, based at one of 21 locations nationwide.
For the first time in living memory, things are about to change. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts that air traffic operations will increase by 150%-250% over the next 20 years and even conservative estimates expose a lack of planned capacity to deal with this expansion. With air transportation considered vital to national growth, industry figures voiced fears that if the system didn't improve, it could have adverse economic effects and, at worst, lead to complete stagnation. The solution proposed by the FAA is the next-generation air transportation system, or NextGen.
NextGen will see the introduction of GPS-based tracking technology, which will allow planes to determine their own positions with greater precision. It will also lead to the implementation of a more advanced communications system, which will allow for different types of data to be transmitted to other aircraft as well as to air traffic control centres. According to Jim Trinka, director of training and development at the FAA, these technical developments will require more than just additional technical training for staff members.
"In the past a new piece of equipment would come along and we'd train our staff on how to operate it and how to maintain it," he explains. "NextGen will completely change the role of the air traffic controller. Instead of just providing what I call 'knobology' training, we'll be reconsidering how our controllers and technicians should act on the job."
Trinka is responsible for the hiring and training of America's air traffic controllers, of which there are 15,000 at this time. As the aircraft becomes part of the airspace system and all navigation and communications become satellite-oriented, controllers will no longer be controlling planes but instead monitoring the systems that control them.
Managing the aircraft and keeping a constant eye on traffic flow will become paramount as the role becomes less hands-on and less communicative in nature.
"There will be a lot more need to ensure that systems in the aircraft and systems on the ground are working properly," says Trinka. "There still will be communication, but also a little more monitoring on the controller's part rather than active control."
This change in job emphasis is largely facilitated by a shift from analogue to digital technology, or aeronautical information services to aeronautical information management. This will allow greater amounts of information to flow between planes, airports and air traffic controllers. For example, flight coordinators at TRACONS will gain access to information about aircraft movements on the ground, allowing for quicker landing times and more economical usage of space.
Pilots will, for the first time, be able to see the same real-time displays of air traffic as those on the ground, allowing them to make decisions that would once have been the preserve of the controller. They will also be able to take advantage of the RNP on-board monitoring system, which studies the aircraft's navigational performance and can alert the crew to any inefficiency. A pilot can then make adjustments to route spacing or obstacle clearance without the aid of air traffic control.
"NextGen should lead to greater situational awareness on the part of pilots and make their decision-making more aligned with those in the tower, or the control centre," Trinka says. "This can only have positive implications for safety."
Of course, until the new system is in place, the true extent of change in the air traffic controller's role will not be fully understood. In preparation, Trinka and his team are in the process of examining the core competencies required for each position, from the terminal to the tower. Their aim is to ascertain as best they can the level and type of knowledge required and how to distribute it in a way that fits the new system.
"Of course, we have to produce controllers and technicians with the knowledge and skills to do their jobs," he says. "But there is also organisational competency. Am I making enough of these technicians at the right pace for the organisation? Tell us how you want our controllers to act and we can start the training effort much earlier. Then, when a piece of equipment comes, we can do the knobology and our folks will already know how to act."
Although, with roll-out not expected until 2025, concrete details are patchy as to what a NextGen training programme will entail, the FAA training and development team is well represented in the consultation process.
"We are involved in both the planning and acquisition effort," Trinka explains. "We have representatives on all panels, looking forward to the NextGen system. When they sense that training is ready to be developed, they'll let us know."
The transformation will be gradual. Small operational tweaks will accumulate until the system is completely satellite-guided and its information systems digitised – a big change from League's day, but undoubtedly a necessary one.