Written by 16:53 Idea Blender, Linkinbio, Risk Management

What you can learn from an air traffic controller

Get insights on how Air Traffic Controllers have adapted ways of working and how you can adapt it for your field

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Air Traffic Control Officer, or more commonly called Air Traffic Controllers are highly trained professionals responsible for the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic. Their job is often considered as one of the most stressing of all. When thinking of air traffic controllers, many imagine a serious man standing in his control tower with a pair of binoculars. Well… times have changed.

Zurich Air Traffic Control Tower, 1970

First of all there are more and more women working as controllers. Secondly many controllers work in so-called area control centers, which are buildings that can be located far away from any airports, making a pair of binocular pretty useless. Instead they work with state-of-the-art equipment allowing them to control several aircraft (up to a dozen) at the same time. Even the traditional tower you see at each airport could become obsolete with more and more ‘remote towers’ being introduced. Concretely meaning that a controller is sitting in a room with 360 degrees screens around him/her and the ability to control the traffic of several airports from the same location. All of that supported by augmented reality tools. 

Air traffic controllers are sometimes called professional decision-makers, referring to the number of key decisions that they have to make in every shift. Thinking about it, we can see the parallel with managers, which can also be considered as ‘professional decision-makers’. As a manager myself I thought, what can I learn from them?

Keep scanning

In order to ensure an expeditious flow of air traffic, or maximum capacity at airports, controllers have to bring aircraft as close as reasonably possible, while managing potential conflicts that could end up in a loss of separation, or in the worst case in a tragic accident.

To do so, aircraft fly on predefined ‘routes’ and at pre-defined levels. The controller thanks to his/her high degree of situational awareness monitors each aircraft and intervene when he/she identify a potential conflict. As trainees, air traffic controllers are taught to keep scanning their airspace (being on a screen, or out of the window if working in a tower). The scanning pattern is repeated again and again, even when solving a specific conflict. This is something that we could transfer to business. A manager keep tracking the possible opportunities, or risks. In case a crisis arises, he/she will naturally focus on it to try to resolve it. Well, it might be worth in this situation to take a bit of time to keep scanning to make sure that while trying to solve a problem, one do not miss the growing crisis that could be fatal to the business.

Using Key Performance Indicators

The second good practice is to detect issues before they become unmanageable problems. The use of Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and/or Key Risk Indicators (KRI) should help managers to detect trends and anticipate issues. That requires to make sure that, first you measure what your business needs and not what you easily have access to (e.g. measuring the overtime of employee should be rather easy in comparison to the customer satisfaction, but what is most useful for you to manage?). Secondly that you measure enough without falling in an ocean of KPIs/KRIs where you no longer see what is relevant. And last but not least, that you act when you detect a trend or a potential issue. That last point sounds obvious, although when exchanging with colleagues from a wide variety of industries, it seems that KPI/KRI presentation became somehow a discipline in itself, which has its slot at the Executive Boards’ agenda. But those sessions rarely generate discussions, they are rather perceived as an exercise that needs to be done for compliance or to show good governance.

Derive decisions into actions

An air traffic controller is probably solving dozens of potential conflicts per shift (obviously it depends on the amount of traffic). What makes him/her so effective and still remain safe? First, air traffic controllers use a standard phraseology. For instance if they want an aircraft to change its direction to avoid another one they will not call the pilot:

“Hey mate, can you turn a bit to the north to avoid the other guy coming in front.”

They will say :

“Hotel Bravo Mike (the registration of the aircraft, or its call sign if he has one) turn right heading three five zero to avoid traffic opposite.”

The idea of using a standard phraseology worldwide is to avoid confusion, and to ease the read-backs, which is when the pilot repeats the clearance he/she was given. That allows the controller to make sure that his/her decision will be implemented correctly. In some cases, it also allows the controller to notice that he/she actually gave an incorrect clearance (e.g. slip of tongue – saying right when you think left). When translating this to ‘normal business’ it comes to two good practices. First, when making decisions, it is key for all stakeholders to have the same understanding. I’ve often observed meetings where decisions are made, but not understood by all the stakeholders in the same way. Therefore, wrapping-up the outcome of the meeting and going briefly through each action should help to minimize misunderstandings or assumptions (typically the ‘I thought the action was given to you, not me’).

Do proper handovers

At the end of his/her shifts (or before a break) the controller has to hand over his/her sector/working position to another colleague. Depending on the traffic situation, this is a particularly critical part of the work as the controller taking over has very limited time to get an accurate situational awareness in order to manage traffic effectively. To ensure that the handover is effective and efficient, there are a couple of basic principles that the controllers apply.

First of all – and it sounds one more time as common sense – the air traffic does not hand over the sector when he/she is in the middle of a difficult situation to deal with. Even if the time at the sector is strictly regulated, the controller will first make sure that the situation he/she hand over to his/her colleague is ‘clean’. Thinking about general business, this is something that is not always feasible. How often are managers facing difficult situations when taking over projects or other initiative at a critical time, where actually continuity would be way more effective? But, people go on leave, fall sick, or are dismissed without necessarily considering the timeline of each planned initiative or project.

Secondly the controllers follow checklists when handing over their work: what is the traffic situation, what is the configuration of the sector, what is the state of the equipment, how is the weather, etc. In business, handovers are often very short, and lacunars, which can results in false assumptions, confusion and misunderstandings. Although it might appear very artificial, why not having some kind of a checklist when handing over to your deputy before your well-deserved vacations?

Report errors to learn out of it

Air traffic controllers, like anybody else, make sometimes errors. Considering the whole aviation as a system (refer to System theory), it is important to understand why this error was made, but also why this error did not degenerate into an accident. In safety management we talk sometimes about the safety I and safety II approaches (refer to Eurocontrol White Paper). Safety I typically focuses on what went wrong, which control or ‘barrier’ failed. Safety II on the other hand focuses on what worked well despite the adverse conditions. It is in fact closer to resilience engineering.

Safety reporting culture has been part of the aviation for decades. It concretely means cultivating an atmosphere where people have confidence to report safety concerns, errors and/or incidents without the fear of blame. This is also sometime referred to as a ‘just culture’. Such reports will be valuable sources of information for the management to know where the entire system might have weaknesses creating a learning culture that will allow the organization to learn from its mistakes and make changes.

In order to create such atmosphere of trust, the role of investigator is often given to people from the front, for instance in an air navigation service provider to an air traffic controller, and in an airline to a pilot. These people will be specifically trained to conduct investigations, and will have some time dedicated for such activities while still ‘working at the sharp end’. Being interviewed by a peer rather than by ‘an investigator from the outside’, might allow the investigator to get better insight of what did actually happen.

Why not applying the same to your team, whatever your industry? In project management post implementation reviews are common and a sign of good practice. Whistleblower channels are also appearing in more and more businesses, but why not applying the same in your team meetings when looking back at past issues, or poor performance? Obviously, the right culture should be created, as it takes only one mistake to be reported and blamed to make sure that you will never hear again on anything going wrong in your business until it get way worse.

Conclusion

Some of the good practices of air traffic control could surely bring some benefits in other industries and in business in general. At the end what is important is not to take the checklists of the air traffic controllers to your board room or your management team, it is rather to look at how specific businesses deal with unconventional issues and try to translate it into your language to be applied in your business to become more effective.

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