Speaking in IATA and CANSO’s recent webinar “Navigating the Industry Restart - Safety Culture & SMS [Safety Management Systems] During a Pandemic”, Tom Laursen, Air Traffic Controller at Area Control Centre Copenhagen and IFATCA Safety Management Panel Member warned of the dangerous consequences of short-term actions in this crisis, when it comes to securing long-term Air Traffic Control expertise.
Tom Laursen is not the first to talk of “unprecedented times” when it comes to air traffic and the “immense dip in traffic never seen before,” which Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) have been learning to cope with. He points out that ATCs currently face different challenges in different regions, and are struggling at different levels, but overall the traffic picture is a much changed one.
In 2019, especially within Europe, there were not enough ATC capacities, and this led to massive delays. Now that traffic is low, “time is on our side” to look at process improvements and “getting everyone on board to establish the best system possible” for coping with capacities once they return.
“We have time to think”
“Most systems are tuned to handle certain amount of traffic, and all procedures are focused on high level traffic. Now we have to handle low level traffic and increase this. This gives us time to think!” Tom Laursen stresses that shorter, more agile, and dynamic communication lines are required to deal with changing circumstances. “New patterns and airlines are coming into the system and we will possibly be dealing with a new traffic picture when we start up again. We need to be alert to new information that is coming out. It is very important to have open communication lines, especially now because with the new traffic patterns, we have to be able to learn and communicate quickly. It is not enough to write a report and hope that change will come. We are all part of safety, so we need to look forward more dynamic ways to communicate between departments.”
A more holistic view of organizational set-ups and challenges is required.
He also points to anxiety amongst Air Traffic Controllers, fearing losing their jobs, urging stakeholders to look at “not just operational issues right now,” but the long-term, overall effect. “Fear for the job is not a good combination for Air Traffic Control!” when it comes to flight safety.
Air Traffic Controllers are not born overnight
“We have to be able to anticipate and monitor what is going on short and long-term. We are very good at short-term, not so good at the long-term.” Some long-term effects can already be anticipated with certain decisions that have been taken. For example, “in Europe, we have seen cuts in staff, and many have stopped training.” In fact, the IFATCA COVID-19 material states that as many as 83% of Air Navigation Service Providers have ceased On-The-Job training since the start of the pandemic, and warns that “Travel bans, cancellation of flights and grounding of fleets will result in a dramatic fall in air traffic in all regions of the world. As has happened before, this drop may lead to the perception that there is
overstaffing of ATCOs and other ATM Professionals.”
While understandable, given the economic slump and the COVID-prevention measures in place, stopping training “will have consequences when traffic picks up again. The decisions we take today will have consequences for tomorrow’s operations. Staff shortage has already led to problems in many areas. It is difficult, under economic pressure, to ensure that we have the capabilities we require in one or two years.”
Training Air Traffic Controllers is a long process that takes up to three years. He warns that “now we have spare capacity, but it will not take long before we are at the limit again, so if we stop training staff, we end up with a problem in future both as regards flight safety as well as flight capacities.”
International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Association
Lastly, he points to the IFATCA guidelines when it comes to navigating this extraordinary period, which also features guidance on “thinking ahead.”
“Luckily, we are currently not under production pressure and have enough time to think, but this should be used to think about how we handle the pre-Covid traffic levels when we come back to them.”
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