Study of Automation – Controller Training

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Study of Automation – Controller Training

18TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Brussels, Belgium, 23-27 April 1979

WP No. 23

Study of Automation – Controller Training


At Copenhagen in 1978 the UK Guild of Air Traffic Controllers presented a paper on this subject (W.P.78.B.58). Their paper was accepted as information material and SC5 requested to look further into the matter. Because of the varying degrees of automation available and in use today this paper has been prepared with the object of providing general guidance to those MAs who are considering or who will shortly be receiving automated ATC systems. The basic problem is a management one. The management of change. Taking the controller from his secure, familiar environment and putting him into an alien situation where a new language is spoken. Keep him well informed, get him involved and train him thoroughly in the new system.

Technical development within ATC is now reaching a level of sophistication which to most controllers seems more like science fiction and as they see it threatens to remove them from the pilot-controller loop. The controller today can sit at a synthetic display, free of clutter, with clear precise symbols to designate very accurately the aircraft. A label attached to each symbol gives call sign or SSR code, actual flight level, attitude (climb/descent), and intermediate flight level. Velocity leaders indicate the projected path of the aircraft for 60 seconds and artificial after-glow shows the previous positions.

By means of a touch-wire (Touch input Device) the controller can communicate with the computer and perform numerous functions related to a particular flight. Many of these functions are performed automatically e.g. label conflict resolution, updating of ETAs, handover to adjacent sector. Automatic correlation is possible using protected individual codes assigned to each aircraft. It is possible to do away with flight progress strips altogether. Automatic exchange of data between ATC units is no longer a vision but today’s reality. Despite these technological innovation we still need the controller to perform essential tasks. In no way is automation replacing the controller and neither will he be assigned to simple monitoring of automated systems. Automation is here to assist the controller and to relieve him of some mundane aspects of his work. He will though have to learn about these new systems and procedures as did those amongst us who experienced the introduction of radar, Automation, like radar, is a tool to be used by the controller to provide a SAFE and EXPEDITIOUS flow of traffic.


Defining specifications

There are two ways of introducing automation into an ATC system :

(i)  go and buy a ready-made system;

(ii)  develop your own system.

Buying an automated ATC system rather like buying a car. We have some vague idea of what we want but after discussion with the salesman we often come away with a bigger, more expensive model which has more extras than we are ever going to use. Don’t blame the Salesman. Did we define our specification? If you decide to develop your own system you will probably get what you want with the close involvement of all concerned but at much greater cost. Whatever path is chosen the automated system must be designed to do the task performed by the ATC unit into which it is being implemented. Early involvement of controllers is essential. A group of controllers should be given training in automatic data processing followed by specialist training in drawing-up of specification. It is often necessary to detach this group to gain experience from an organisation already operating an automated system.

Once specifications have been determined and the degree of automation required has been decided on then the technical purchase and implementation timescale have to be very carefully aligned. Training the controller will take much longer and it may be better to consider the introduction of automation in stages. The next stage not being implemented until the controllers are fully conversant and confident with the previous stage.

Training the controllers

This training should also take into account the Air Traffic Assistants one of whose tasks will be the input of flight plan data into the computer. Basic knowledge of computers and automatic data processing: All controllers should receive instruction in basic computer technology. In some organisations this is already given at the end of cadet or ab-initio training. Because of the impracticability of having large numbers of controllers away on courses at the same time much of this instruction will have to be given at the unit. Certain controllers (training officers?) will be selected to undergo specialist courses in automatic data processing and it will then be their task to instruct the other controllers.

This background knowledge will be useful in making the controller more aware of the impact of automation and should increase his confidence in the new system. Naturally this training should be given before the implementation of the automated system. Perhaps the most important part of the training is that concerning the familiarisation and operation of the new system. New procedures may well have to be written and experience will call for many modifications. A small group will be responsible for this training – both classroom and practical. Ideally, one sector in the operation room (or adjacent) will be off-line permitting training on “operational” equipment. It is important that training is carried out not only on an individual basis but also on a team basis. Often faults and misunderstandings will not come to light until everyone is working together.

Training programmes will have to be carefully planned. Initially much resentment can be expected especially if the controllers can see no good reason to change a system with which they have worked for many years and have full confidence in. A well-informed and enthusiastic training staff is essential. Much of the training may have to take place during the normal break periods.

As the automated ATC system expands the controller will require continuation training at set intervals in order to make the most of facilities offered to him. It is of equal importance to continue training the controller for the eventuality of a system failure or such which will require reversion to manual or non-radar procedures. Some of the controllers operating an automated ATC system will have had little or no procedural experience. Effective training in this aspect will enable the controller to retain his confidence in the system even though a failure has occurred.

Involvement of controllers

To obtain “the” automated system to fit “the” ATC unit, to ease the introduction and implementation of this new equipment, to write effective operating procedures, to train the controllers and get them to accept change – it is essential to involve controllers at every level, from the start. They are the people who know their ATC environment best. Whatever plans for an automated ATC system are formulated they must be flexible enough to accept feedback from the people who will be making it work.


Automated ATC systems, in varying degrees of sophistication, are readily available today. The experience gained by those operating automated ATC systems should be sought by those embarking on automation. The drawing-up of specifications is a specialist task requiring automatic data processing and air traffic control skills.

All controllers should attend courses on the basic principles of automatic data processing as applied to ATC. Carefully planned training courses must be integrated with system implementation. A practical training sector should be established using off-line equipment. Continuation training should be given at set intervals.

Controllers should be involved at all levels. Many of them acquiring new skills in the process. Equipment reliability plus thorough training in both theory and practice will help to maintain controller confidence.


Standing Committee 5 recommends that:

Controllers required to operate in an automated air traffic control system receive relevant instruction in automatic data processing for ATC.

Controllers are involved at all levels in the specification, evaluation and implementation of an automated ATC system.

Formal training is established for all ATC personnel in the theoretical and practical procedures associated with the automated ATC system.

The above training to be carefully integrated with the implementation of each stage of the automated ATC system.

ATC supervisors and managers attend a course or seminar dealing with “The Management of change”.

Standing Committee 5 requests Conference to direct MAs to accept this working paper as guidance material and in addition to consider that the above recommendations become IFATCA policy.

Reference Documentation

WP 78 – B 58

ICAO PANS-RAC (DOC4444 – RAC/501/11) Attachment D 10/8/78 – Guidance Material on the application of Automation in ATC.

Last Update: September 19, 2020  

November 23, 2019   242   Jean-Francois Lepage    1979    

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