Pilots and Controllers Safely Move Traffic
Friday, July 19, 2013

This week, the Air Line Pilot’s Association, International (ALPA) hosted their annual Air Safety Forum, bringing together professionals from throughout the aviation industry to discuss new technologies and safety. Marc Henegar, ALPA Air Traffic Services Chair, moderated a panel discussion about pilot and controller collaboration. The following current and former controllers participated in the forum:

• Dale Wright, NATCA Director of Safety and Technology;
• Tom Adcock, NATCA National Training Representative;
• Dr. Bill Coyne, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Associate Professor/Program Coordinator for Air Traffic Management;
• Tim Arel, Air Traffic Organization Safety and Technical Training Manager of the Compliance Services Group.

(Left to right) Henegar, Arel, Wright, Adcock and Coyne participate in a panel at ALPA's Air Safety Forum.

The panel began with discussion about the various safety reporting systems available to both pilots and controllers, and the collaborative nature of collecting and analyzing the data coming from the reports.

Arel explained that each year, 1,860 reported events are classified as risk analysis events, but only 37 of them are recorded as high-risk events. He said that resources are then dedicated to alleviating those risks.

“When you look at all those numbers, and you look at the percentage of losses of separation in contrast to the volume of operations, it’s still a pretty darn safe system,” Arel said.

Safety programs such as Traffic Analysis Review Program (TARP), Comprehensive Electronic Data Analysis and Reporting (CEDAR), Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), Confidential Information Share Program (CISP) and Operational Error Detection Program (OEDP) have provided over 10 times more data over the last three years.

This increase in data has allowed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to formulate the top five hazards in the National Airspace System (NAS) each year.

In order to mitigate any risks, the panel members agreed that it was important for controllers and pilots alike to continuously be updated and trained on hazards, stemming all the way down to initial training.

“Just looking at the 2013 [hazards], we’ve taught some of these things and included them in our curriculum,” said Coyne. “This helps me as a representative of the collegiate program to adjust our curriculum, to cover areas more in depth that we’ve maybe just touched on before, above and beyond the air traffic basics that we’re in partnership with the FAA to make sure we cover.”

Coyne explained the process that a student interested in air traffic control must go through at a Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) school, such as Embry-Riddle. They must pass an Air Traffic Basics exam and the Air Traffic Selection and Training test before the school will recommend them as an air traffic control candidate to the FAA. 

Once they are in a facility after training, controllers can choose to participate in the Flight Deck Training program where they actually sit in a cockpit for the duration of a flight and experience what a pilot does. Nearly 100 controllers each month take advantage of this learning opportunity.

“The program has been going really well,” said Wright. “I’ve never heard a controller come back that didn’t have some kind of ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘that was surprising to me’ [moment].”

Wright and Adcock also emphasized the importance of pilots coming into facilities to learn what controllers do and the reasoning behind some of the decisions controllers make. They both answered questions about why a controller might approve some requests but not others, and the many other factors that go into decision making.

The discussion concluded with discussion about the effects sequestration will have on controller staffing as more controllers reach retirement age.

Arel explained that there are between 800 and 900 qualified candidates waiting to go to the training academy in Oklahoma City, before moving on to training at their individual facilities. 

“We’ve started executing the leftover FY13 funds to have the academy up and running and ready to go in October,” Arel said. “The important thing for us right now is we’re working with both Terminal and Enroute, as well as the HR folks that do the hiring, is those critically staffed facilities getting the balance just right.

“We know that three years from now, we’ll feel the cuts from the hiring that we did not do this year.”

Panelists discuss aviation safety reporting programs, controller training and the effects of sequestration on new controller hiring.