The air traffic controller profession has great demands on the cognitive functioning of the brain. What makes it challenging is not only the combined activities of ‘information processing’ and ‘planning/decision-making’, but also the fact that ATCO’s need to do this in a constantly changing environment.

In this paper, it was shown how air traffic controllers reduce cognitive complexity by filtering the available information and adding structure with rules and routines. However, there is a limit to what the mind can handle. Our cognitive capacity can be even further reduced by increasingly complex systems, interference, distractions, ageing and switching between multiple modes of operation.

The human is the highly skilled centre of the ATM system. When implementing new technology and working methods, it must not be overlooked that the proposed changes should be a help, not a burden. Therefore the limitations to cognitive functioning should be examined when Human Factors and Human Performance are addressed.

The Executive Function of the brain is critical throughout an ATCO’s work, whenever planning or decision-making is needed, in complex situations where regular knowledge- based behaviour is not sufficient and when coping with changing mental representations.

To have true situation awareness requires a high level of focus, which implies the ability to project the future actions of the elements in the environment, achieved through knowledge of status and dynamics of the elements and comprehension of the situation.

Situation awareness can be structured as follows: level 1 is perception, level 2 is comprehension, and level 3 is projection.

Several models for cognitive processes of ATCO’s have been presented. Niessen et al. (1998) have a dynamic approach in which they acknowledge three stages in the diagnosis of potential conflicts: observing, analysing and anticipating. Air traffic controllers’ cognitive cycle consists of a monitoring cycle, anticipation cycle and problem solving cycle.

ATCO’s reduce cognitive complexity by filtering all available information and impulses to the absolute necessary, and by using a structure (e.g. rules, strategic routines) as a basis for their cognitive processes.

Despite this, controllers can become overloaded when the cognitive complexity of a situation exceeds their capabilities. The cognitive function has a limited capacity and is vulnerable to interference and confusion. Comprehensive ATC systems can challenge an ATCO, for instance by contributing to visual and auditory interference in the brain. It can also be demanding to operate in two different modes of operation of a technical or automated system, e.g. when working regular and vertical view, or when switching between two or more environments in multiple remotely operated tower systems. Keeping two or more mental pictures ‘alive’ can lead to reduced situation awareness, longer response times and an increased risk of errors. It is likely to increase the workload of a controller.

It is well known that ageing imposes restrictions to cognitive functioning. Experience may diminish the effect, but this is harder when one is confronted with changing environments. The topic of distractions at the working position is another example of cognitive challenges.

Our minds are able to reduce cognitive complexity, but other (outside) factors increase the cognitive load.

There are limits to our cognitive functioning; we can get into an overload.

For more than 35 years, IFATCA has been drawing attention to the human in the ATM system. With the ATCO not being a line worker, but the highly skilled centre of the system, this apprehension is fully justified. It is still common that the human factor is overlooked and specialists are called in too late when implementing new systems and when introducing challenging working methods. With the ATC world being on the eve of new technological breakthroughs, it is more important than ever to realize that controllers have to be able to mentally keep up with this, and deliver at least the same quality in safety and efficiency.

IFATCA Policy is:

Capabilities and limitations of cognitive processes shall be considered when addressing Human Performance and Human Factors.

See: WP 303 – Las Vegas 2016


Last Update: October 2, 2020  

November 4, 2019   203   Jean-Francois Lepage    WC    

Comments are closed.

  • Search Knowledgebase