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The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter. As of April 2020 Uplink ALPA is a 6-monthly publication.

US ATC union sharing knowledge and experience to create safer airspace

NZALPA’s ATC Professional Standards Coordinator Chris Miller (left) with NATCA Professional Standards representatives Josh Cooper and Garth Koleszar.

With more than 14,000 air traffic controllers (ATCs) operating throughout the United States, it’s no wonder that their union, the National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA), is leading the way with industry research and resources relating to risk, safety and technology.

Fortunately NATCA, the US equivalent of NZALPA, is willing to share its information and findings with its international colleagues, NZALPA’s ATC Professional Standards Programme (PSP) coordinator Chris Miller said.

In March this year, Miller was invited by NATCA representatives to attend their Communicating for Safety conference in Las Vegas. The conference is the biggest aviation safety event of the year.

“NATCA showed enormous generosity by inviting delegates from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK,” Miller said.

“This appears to be an extension of their eagerness to collaborate, which we’ve seen at past International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) and NATCA events.”

The Las Vegas conference this year centred on the benefits and processes of collaboration, with panel discussion and specialist speakers presenting on the theme.

“It was interesting to hear how the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which is the equivalent of our CAA, and NATCA work closely together,” Miller said.

The FAA is the regulator and the employer, while NATCA is the union.

“Each person at NATCA has a person with whom they work at the FAA. I was surprised at how well they consistently work together,” Miller said.

“It was so clear that fundamentally the main aim for both parties was to always work with safety of the overall system in mind.”

Pilot and ATC communications were at the centre of talks on day two of the conference, with many of the issues experienced in New Zealand similar to those that American pilots and ATCs struggle with too.

“It was unanimously decided that standard phraseology should be used to guarantee safe outcomes,” Miller said.

“It might be easy for ATCs and pilots to use non-standard terms and talk casually but, by doing so, they increase the possibility of misunderstandings and something going wrong. By using standard phraseology, we can reduce confusion and errors, and therefore mitigate risk.”

Other panel discussions revealed that ATCs should continue to provide pilots with extensive weather information.

“The conference confirmed to ATCs that pilots find more detailed weather updates valuable and that they are not bothering them with too much information,” Miller said.

“The pilots who reported on the issue were keen to have all the data they could find, including weather information, which helps them build the big picture throughout the flight, not just for take off and landing.”

Speakers on runway safety talked about the FAA’s runway-safety plan and the need to eliminate non-essential use of the runway by vehicles as a risk-mitigation option.

“I’m looking forward to feeding the information I gained from the conference about runway safety back to the Safety Improvement Coordinator at Airways New Zealand, as this might have an impact on Airways’ own runway-safety plan,” Miller said.

NATCA representatives have also agreed to work directly with NZALPA and Airways on the matter.

Internationally renowned risk management consultant Gordon Graham’s keynote speech was a highlight of the conference for many. He talked through an engaging presentation about getting ahead of risk and focusing on ongoing training for the incidents that are low in frequency and high in risk.

“Gordon very rightly said that we need to keep ATCs and pilots prepared and trained for situations that don’t happen often but are serious,” Miller said.

“Most other situations happen often enough that we can deal with them – it’s the rare and serious that we need to be aware of.”

Miller will be talking to Airways about Graham’s findings, with hopes to introduce regular short training exercises that expose ATCs to high-risk events – In the US, little-and-often exposure has been trialled with successful outcomes. 

Key learnings taken from US Professional Standards Programme

The day after the Communicating for Safety conference, NATCA invited Chris Miller to sit in on its private meeting with FAA representatives to discuss the ATC Professional Standards Programme.

The FAA managers and NATCA representatives oversee the programme while NATCA volunteers implement the programme with members.

“It was encouraging to see how the employer plays a vital role in the Professional Standards Programme,” Miller said.

FAA involvement allows ATC’s issues to be dealt with in two ways – the traditional (and formal) disciplinary path or by less-formal referral to the Professional Standards Programme. This has proved to save time, money and resources, and also maintain better working relationships. Most importantly for the profession, it has also proven very effective at resolving conflicts and changing unprofessional behaviours.

“As Airways has chosen not to be involved yet, the New Zealand Programme is completely run by NZALPA, resolving peer-to-peer issues, and doesn’t involve managers or discipline matters,” Miller said.

“With Airways involvement, we could take the Programme so much further. I’m looking forward to working with them on this.”

A second Professional Standards Programme meeting between NATCA and American Airlines discussed the relationships between the pilots’ Professional Standards Programme and the ATC Professional Standards Programme.

“It was clear that both programmes could benefit by working together in order to cater for any issues that might occur between pilot and ATC,” Miller said.

“The more collaboratively we work in every area, the better it is for the safety of the industry and the wellbeing of our members.”

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