All Hands on Deck

31 August 2008 (Last Updated August 31st, 2008 18:30)

As air navigation moves towards automation, service providers are taking the opportunity to cut costs on staffing. Doug Churchill and Scott Shallies look at the dangers involved in this attitude and explore alternative possibilities for the future of aviation.

All Hands on Deck

Security and safety are legitimate concerns of the travelling public. In today's environment, aggressive measures are needed to ensure that, in a system as vulnerable as aviation, optimum precautions are taken. High standards demand high levels of commitment, in particular to those non-financial resources that form the keys to a true culture of safety – the foremost being human resources.

Staffing requirements must be sufficient to accomplish the task at hand. Technology may play the lead role in the evolution of the air transport industry but incorporating automation into the design of the system is only one part of the equation. The efficiency and safety of any air navigation service (ANS) is dependent upon another must-have – adequate manpower.

Continuing need for well-trained staff

For any company or organisation to fulfil its objectives, a healthy, well-trained complement of staff is a necessity.

It is vital that ANS providers ensure enough controllers are on duty to handle traffic volumes safely. So why, as traffic levels continue to increase the world over, are the staffing levels of air traffic controllers allowed to stagnate at levels insufficient to handle these increases?

This trend represents an unacceptable level of risk, which can only lead to escalating controller workload and fatigue, causing more system restrictions. What is the rationale behind high-level decisions being taken by some providers not to increase staffing to their own stated requirements?

There is now a shortage of air traffic controllers of about 10%-15%, despite the acknowledgement that traffic will continue to rise and more controllers are becoming eligible to retire due to the increasing age profile. But what is the point of a provider developing a proactive safety culture if they place the one critical element – staff – at the bottom of the must-have list?

Fatigue management

There is no clear-cut answer to the question of fatigue management. Behind the scenes thousands of air traffic controllers work day and night to ensure the safety of air travel. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy environment for their staff and fatigue management falls within this area of responsibility. Employees must maintain a healthy lifestyle so as to provide the employer with a high-quality service for a reasonable period of years. We also have an obligation to offer input about the design and conditions of the workplace.

"Key initiatives such as SESAR will require staff to develop and implement changes."

In an ideal world we would work closely with our managers to develop work rosters, taking into consideration the effect they have on our wellbeing. Our interface with work cycles is as crucial as our interface with technology. We must take seriously the physiological implications of our body rhythms.

Some progressive ANS providers have introduced computer-based fatigue risk management systems (FRMS), by which all controllers' work schedules are assessed and kept below a certain threshold. Overtime shifts and extra hours must be assessed by the FRMS and be determined safe. These systems are a step in the right direction, offering protection to providers and employees.

The greatest contributor to controller fatigue is the amount of overtime being worked. The reliance by ANS providers on overtime to maintain operations at normal levels is unsustainable in the long term, and does not cater for growth in traffic. The failure to maintain or increase controller staffing to required levels is a false economy, as the potential implications of not doing so may be restrictions to traffic or, in the worst case scenario, a reduction in safety levels. Inadequate staffing levels have already been implicated in air traffic control (ATC)-related accidents, such as the Lexington crash in the US.

Automation needs people

In the long term, automated systems may be seen by ANS providers as a means for cutting controller numbers. But the staff shortage they are dealing with today may limit providers' ability to implement new automated systems or indeed any organisational initiatives or restructures that may ultimately provide benefits to providers and the wider aviation community.

Key initiatives, such as the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR), will require extra staff to develop and implement changes. At a recent European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) meeting it was stated that 500,000 man-days are required for validation for SESAR IP1 and IP2. This doubles the expected staffing shortfall in Europe from 10% to 20%. There is an estimated shortage of 1,000 air traffic control officers (ATCOs) below the number required for normal operations. The shortage of ATCOs will inevitably jeopardise initiatives such as SESAR, and thus delay the benefits they can bring.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA) is convinced that, even with the introduction of advanced automation through projects including SESAR and Next Generation Air Transportation System (Nextgen), there will be a need for traditionally trained and selected controllers until at least 2020. A potential reduction of workforce would not become a reality before 2030 and even so it is unlikely that the number of controllers would decrease; in fact each controller might handle more aircraft. In any case the industry must accept that any potential reduction in ATCO numbers resulting from automation would not be possible for at least another generation.

During the transition phase from existing to future systems, there is a need for more than the minimum number of controllers to handle day-to-day traffic. If SESAR and Nextgen are to be successfully introduced, the incumbent workforce must be involved in validation, modelling, conceptual work and simulation, all of which require work outside the control centre. Furthermore the introduction of safety-management systems and the move from a technology-driven to a performance-driven approach to ATC will require more experts with an operational background outside control centres. We need at least an additional 15% on top of minimum staff numbers simply to handle traffic.

"Despite developments in automated technology, traditionally trained operators will be required until 2020."

ATC profession less attractive

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many prospective recruits to the ATC profession are discouraged from applying by widely held views about the deterioration of controller wages and conditions, and chronic staff shortages that require considerable amounts of overtime.

Most ANS providers' perceptions about staff numbers mean they do too little to recruit and train sufficient controllers to sustain existing operations, much less address the shortfall. There needs to be a concerted effort to make the profession attractive to potential recruits with regards to terms, conditions and the future of the job.

Inadequate state response

Another safety-critical area of concern is the inadequate response by many states and ANS providers to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)-mandated compliance date in early 2008, which requires all controllers to be trained to – and certified as having reached – Level 4 English Language proficiency.

Numerous examples in aviation history indicate that language difficulties have been significant contributors to accidents. This is indicative of an unfortunate attitude that exists in some organisations that controller staffing and training is less crucial than other parts of their business.