More than 100 air traffic controllers from around the Asia-Pacific region and beyond will come together for the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) regional meeting in Wellington this month.
The three-day meeting (19-21 October) will incorporate guest speakers, workshops, presentations, opportunities for discussion and social events.
The main day of proceedings will coincide with International Day of the Air Traffic Controller marked on 20 October every year.
This year’s theme will be Automation in the Workforce, which will look at the changing role of the air traffic controller, how they adapt to automation, and how technology is affecting the role.
Ahead of this month’s event, Uplink caught up with two IFATCA attendees who will lead presentations during the conference - President and Chief Executive Patrik Peters, and Corporate Members Coordinator and Deputy Editor of The Controller magazine, Philippe Domogala.
As the President and Chief Executive of IFATCA, Peters is responsible for the overall running and the strategy of the Federation. Together with the Executive Board, he prepares meetings and conferences with stakeholders and members, gives presentations about the organisation’s work and speaks at international aviation events around the world.
“Whenever there is safety in aviation involved, IFATCA also gets involved and endeavours to raise the profile of the ATC profession,” he said.
“I assist and coordinate interventions and mediate between members and their national air navigation service providers. We are not a union and will not engage in bargaining or similar actions. Our aim is improved safety for the flying public and a sound standing for our profession.”
He is also an air traffic controller and Room Supervisor, Tactical/Capacity, at the Eurocontrol Upper Area Control Centre in Maastricht/The Netherlands. Eurocontrol is a supranational European organisation for the safety of air navigation and has this one very busy facility in Europe.
“We control air traffic in central Europe above The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the northern half of Germany above 24.500 feet/FL245 – about 5500 movements per day with an annual increase of ca. 4 percent.”
Why is the Regional Meeting important to the ATC community?
The IFATCA regional meetings are, compared to our annual conference, the more intimate meetings. Here we have the appropriate forum to discuss specifics to the region and can cater for more tailor-made presentations and assistance to a smaller audience.
Why is New Zealand a good host nation for this year’s meeting?
New Zealand or better-said NZALPA, along with some other member associations, are role models in their participation at IFATCA conferences and the various committees. New Zealand is a liberal country making it easy and imposes only few restrictions for foreigners to travel to.
Several NZALPA officers have served on IFATCA committees or the Executive Board in the past and thus the knowledge of the Federations’ work and the support of the Federation is above average here.
How do you think delegates will benefit from attending?
Delegates have access to the Federations’ Executive Board and other officers in a relaxed atmosphere and we usually witness a better interaction. The group is a smaller one and members
engage more easily in discussions or share their problems and fears. For the Executive Board it is of utmost importance to know about our members’ problems, whether they are specific to a certain country or regional.
Information sharing is of main importance. This makes people not feel alone with their worries. One can learn from others and determine strengths and weaknesses.
Why is automation and fatigue important topics to discuss?
With a worldwide shortage of air traffic controllers, many of our service providers’ emphasis is put on automation as the solution. Automation though is often misunderstood for processes being completed autonomously (without human intervention). This is a false perception. The human has to remain in the loop. Automation can and will, to an increasing extent, assist and take over some routine tasks, but is never a failsafe and cannot be left unattended.
Furthermore, automation requires a lot of training of the staff involved. Financial investments are not to be underestimated and might exceed the desired benefits.
Fatigue is a pressing issue in our industry and that counts for both pilots and controllers. As understaffing is thought to be overcome by extra duties or overtime, fatigue symptoms are being increasingly and worryingly reported around the globe. Condensing working time and an excessive amount of overtime creates fatigue.
Controllers as well as pilots also have the responsibility to take care of their fitness to perform at work. This is not to be underestimated and requires awareness campaigns like this one. Our European pilots’ association, the European Cockpit Association (ECA), has flagged the issue several times in the past.
What do you think the future role of an air traffic controller looks like?
Our profession will require more technical knowledge and we will have more assistance with regards to routine tasks. This extra capacity will, though, be absorbed rather quickly by the overall increasing traffic.
When we talk about the future, we have to remind ourselves about the percentage of top-qualified, top-equipped staff with proper salaries and a good working environment. Ninety percent of our colleagues, though, do not have this luxury. Many of us work under poor circumstances, with outdated equipment and improper working conditions, often not able to make a living on their ATCO salary as such. Rather than concentrating on the top level, we have the obligation to ensure that all our members can keep track.
Generally, it is fair to say that we will evolve more into traffic managers, rather than tactically controlling traffic. This will require a new way of thinking amongst us but also in the airline industry as traffic flows, speeds and levels will be dealt with less and less in the today normal individual level, but more on an assigned and pre-decided route, level and speed. Major bottleneck with regards to capacity is not the airspace but increasingly the missing concrete on the ground (airports and their size) and environmental restrictions.
What has changed most about the job during your time as an air traffic controller?
I started my air traffic controller training in August 1990, now counting 27 years in the profession. I have gone through various positions – from a junior controller, to training officer, senior controller, sector supervisor to my current position as Room Supervisor Tactical/Capacity. I still work actively as an air traffic controller – about 50 percent of my time.
The basics are still the same. We still work with a VHF frequency and use the same separation standards, 1000 feet and five nautical miles. We do have more assisting systems at hand. Traffic has increased four to five times in those years!
While Domogala is currently the Corporate Members Coordinator and also the Deputy Editor of IFATCA’s magazine The Controller, he has been involved in IFATCA since 1976 and occupied various positions, including those held in the Executive Board. He was also a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Future Air Navigation System (FANS) group, and, using his pilot hat, was the liaison officer to the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) Air Traffic Service (ATS) committee for many years. When requested, he also acts as a representative to various meetings where IFATCA presence is necessary.
Domogala is officially retired after having worked for Eurocontrol Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre for 35 years as a Radar Controller, as Centre Supervisor, then finally as expert in safety and human factors. He is still completing some safety-related work for Eurocontrol.
He describes himself as a ‘pure aviation person’ as his main hobby and passion is gliding and general aviation flying.
You will be speaking about pilot-controller communications at the Regional Meeting, why this subject?
Communications is one of the most important elements of safety. In our daily jobs as controllers we deal with many nationalities and cultures, and it is essential we communicate without ambiguity, especially in cases of emergency, which is the theme of my presentation. This might sound like an old problem that should have been solved long ago, but unfortunately recent fatal accidents are proving to us that it is still an issue today. Cultural differences are still very strong, and this is why I take every opportunity I have to promote this issue.
What countries are demonstrating best practice when it comes to safety?
Traditionally it was the Anglo Saxon world (UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, etc.) that has been at the forefront of aviation safety. The first systemic accident investigations, safety management systems and risk analysis, etc. all came from those countries and the rest of the world followed. This was also where most of the air traffic was flying and originating from.
Today, the picture has shifted, most of the world traffic will soon be in the Asia-Pacific Region, and aircraft from all over the world will be coming into that airspace. You cannot rest anymore on the idea that because you are good, you are safe. Safety is as good as its weakest link. Today you have to look at safety outside of what you do in your own country. It is a global task.
What are some of the threats to aviation safety?
The major threat to safety is its cost. Nowadays we are all managed by economics people, whether in ATC or in an airline, and everything that costs money is not popular.
An example of this is taking a controller (or a crew) off work for a week to follow a safety course or even just a refresher training course – this costs money and is a constant challenge in many places. You all know the old saying: “If you think training is expensive try an accident!” Having lived through and followed closely the Uberlingen collision and its consequences, I can tell you first-hand that this is absolutely correct.
This constant quest for cheaper and “more efficient” ways to do things has its limits and is a real risk for safety in both short and long term.
You’ve worked as an air traffic controller for more than 30 years, what has changed most during that time?
In the way we work, surprisingly not much really. If you would have told me back in 1969 that in 2017 most controllers will still be working by looking at a radar screen, talking through a VHF and clearing aircraft to a VOR or an ILS, I would not have believed you. It is also still 1000 feet and five nautical miles, the criteria defined for primary radar in 1945.
On the professional side, however, a lot. In my part of the world, professional recognition to start with and there are far better working conditions, training and salaries. Safety has also improved a lot from the 1970s when I started.
On the technical side I saw lots of automated tools introduced, like short-term conflict alert (STCA) and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), also automatic data transfer on the ground, and advanced flight-plan processing systems.
But all that automation only enabled us to handle more traffic, which was multiplied by eight in Europe in those 40 years. But this did not change fundamentally the way we worked.
What do you think the future role of an air traffic controller looks like?
That will not change much. Just like pilots, we’ll still be here in 30 years. Mark my words.
Automation will deliver more tools, more possibilities, but these will only allow us to absorb more traffic, not to replace us.
Autonomous aircraft and automatic air traffic control? This is very good for movies, just like the flying cars. But for tomorrow? Yes, we will see artificial intelligence automating some tasks; more satellite-based communications and navigation; more auto lands in very bad weather; maybe a reduction in separation standards to allow more aircraft in the same piece of airspace, or even on the same runway (economics again).
And who knows, let’s dream – maybe even a globally functioning fast and secure data link. But we’ll still be there separating and expediting aircraft in a not so different manner as we do today. However, where we will be working from will perhaps be different.