Don’t ground the air traffic control experts

Air traffic controllers are seeing their role change. Picture: Toby Williams
Air traffic controllers are seeing their role change. Picture: Toby Williams
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As technology changes the role of the air traffic controller, smart human resources moves will ensure expertise isn’t wasted, says Marion Daly

AFTER a detailed strategy presentation at a NATS Leadership Conference, the boss said: “Right – we have a clear understanding of the change programme we have to deliver at Prestwick Centre, so how do we make sure all our people are ready to deliver it?”

Such questions keep an HR Business Partner awake at night – because the answers will make the difference between success and failure for NATS Prestwick Centre.

What are the changes that are coming? Technology is a big part of it with the introduction of new controlling tools that use 4D routes (time, speed, height and direction). This will move controlling from its current state, involving constant tactical interventions by the Air Traffic Controller (ATCO), to more of a planning and monitoring role, with the system managing the flight plan for the aircraft.

Does this mean ATCOs will not be needed in my lifetime? Very unlikely. But their role will change significantly from when they were originally trained. An additional complication concerns collaboration, whether with airspace neighbours as part of a formal Functional Airspace Block (FAB) under the Single European Sky legislation, or with other Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) in alliances to deliver improvements in safety, technology and delivery of service.

I have worked in this business for four years and one of the first things I observed is the level of professionalism and pride ATCOs take in their ability, their skill and the tactical delivery of a service to the customer. What comes with this is a certain belief and self-confidence that generally means you like to be in full control. So how do you tell someone with this approach that in the future they will intervene less? How do you capture and understand the emotional reaction to changes in the way they do something, which many consider not a job but a professional calling? How do you reassure people who fear changes which create greater efficiency but threaten their job security?

The answer to these big questions lies in two key areas – the engagement with and the personal development of the people delivering the changes.

This means finding ways to get everyone at Prestwick Centre talking about the changes regularly and figuring out together how to overcome the hurdles along the way – no single management presentation will do the trick.

I remember, early in my career, being taught the quotation from Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

This seems very relevant in starting to answer some of the questions posed above. If we are to deliver new technology we need ATCOs and support staff fully involved in getting that right. Systems cannot be designed in ivory towers and delivered as a package; there must be a genuine collaboration between systems developers, programme delivery teams and users. This is the approach we are taking at Prestwick.

This means we closely monitor the talent we have. For those with identified potential, we demand a development plan, and for all ATCOs we require participation in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) activity, which often means encouraging involvement in projects outside the operations room.

Such projects include Prestwick Centre Upper Airspace (PCUA), where the primary objective is to introduce trajectory or route-based operations into a defined volume of the airspace, increase individual flight efficiency and support greater overall traffic capacity in UK airspace and integration with the wider air traffic management (ATM) network.

The PCUA solution will be an important step in more closely aligning NATS operations with other European ANSPs, as articulated in the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research programme. The programme will deliver the first step of the strategic Flight Data Processing and Common Workstation platforms to be deployed across all NATS operations, putting Prestwick in the vanguard of future ATM development.

In terms of People Development, we are working with a small team from our Technology Development department, whose background is in operational delivery. This team is working closely with line managers and HR to help identify the right people for the right job and the right development for capable individuals.

The delivery of development activities internally – leadership programmes, shadowing, technical training and CPD – takes teamwork in a much wider NATS context and we are linked into both our local Training & Simulation teams and our NATS Organisation Development department. We also support development activities externally for our people, including language skills, engineering and Human Factors courses.

There is more work to do as we continue to deliver the right development opportunities to the people at Prestwick in order to let them deliver the future. What I am most sure of is that we have a base of talent right now that is equal to the task – so the sleepless nights will be correspondingly fewer as a result.

• Marion Daly is HR Business Partner at NATS Prestwick Control Centre


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