Human Error in ATC Towers
Today, navigable airspace is increasingly busier as a result of increased air traffic consisting of human-controlled aircraft and drones. This, in turn, leads to an increase in the number of accidents originating from human error. Many air traffic tower control errors result in runway incursions as well as other surface events. At the same time, nearly all of the runway incursions come by as a result of human error especially miscommunication between the controller and the pilot or a misunderstood instruction. This is mostly because the environment is so complex comprising of a large number of interconnect gadgets and integrated circuits, and as a result, they require numerous interactions for the purpose of managing it. Presently, human errors have been documented as one of the main contributors to more than seventy percent (70%) of commercial aircraft accidents (Moon, Yoo, and Choi, 2011). This is unlike in the past where accidents in the aviation industry were highly associated with flight operations and mechanical defaults in the aircraft. Consequently, human error has in the recent past become a major concern in air traffic management owing to the huge number of errors that occur.
This paper seeks to analyze the human errors with a clear focus on ATC tower. Further, the paper analyzes the situation on ATC tower to establish the likely reasons for the many errors. Additionally, the paper examines first-hand information from ATC controllers to understand the causes of increased accidents. Finally, the paper establishes a remedy and possible solutions that will help mitigate this trend.
Human Factors Causing Errors
Human factors can be understood as a multidisciplinary field that incorporates contributions from numerous other fields such as anthropometry, psychology, operations research, statistics, and industrial design (Moon, Yoo, and Choi, 2011). It is a term that covers the technology and understanding of the human capacity as well as the application of the awareness of the design, deployments of systems, developments, and the art of incorporating successful application human factor principles in the aviation industry. This is a factor that is of importance in aviation safety. Several, accidents that can be attributed to human errors are catalyzed by bad weather and miscommunication between the controller and the pilot. In some instances, a controller is usually not aware of entry of an aircraft into its local territory and therefore they are found unprepared to receive the aircraft. This is often a recipe for disaster.
Human factors have in the recent past received increasing popularity in line with the realization that human errors, rather than mechanical flairs as initially speculated, causes most of the aviation incidents and accidents. Many fatal accidents have been blamed on human error at the ATC. An example of such accident is Boeing 707 as it tried to land at JF Kennedy Airport. The plane arrived at Kennedy airport but due to bad weather, only one lane in the airport was opened for over thirty-three aircraft that land in the facility every hour, further, the controllers at the tower had no information about the limited fuel in the plane due to communication lapses with the pilots. So they directed it to an alternative landing point but it did not have enough fuel to get it to the new destination. The plane crashed killing sixty-five passengers and nine crew members just a few miles from the airport. Another fatal air traffic accident occurred in Linate Airport, Italy in the year 2001. Due to human error at the tower, Cessna Citation CJ2 business aircraft was cleared for takeoff on a runway that is not the main highway. Further, communication lapses and misunderstanding between the controller and the pilot led to the pilot taking the wrong turn and crossed the main runway, this led to a collision with Scandinavian Airlines Flight 686, a McDonnell Douglas MD-87 airliner, the accident led to the death of one hundred and eighteen people. These are illustrations of how human error can lead to deadly accidents.
One of the most fundamental principles of aviation safety is ensuring that there is a safe distance between a given flying object and other objects in the airspace. Rules and regulation governing the distance of separation between aircraft and other objects including other aircraft have been formulated to enhance safety. This is where air traffic controllers come into the picture and their expertise is required such situations. It is the duty of traffic controllers to enforce those rules to ensure that at all times, objects in the airspace fly at a safe distance from each other or other objects in the airfield. In that regard, an operation error will occur if the stipulated procedures are not adhered to as result of equipment or human error (Chmura and Malarski, 2008). Increased air traffic presents the danger of increased human error-related accidents. In the recent past, increased number of drones is posing a challenge in the implementation of these regulations. Further, birds around the airport are also proving to be a real concern when trying to tame accidents. In some instances, however, controllers fail to adhere to this regulations mostly when the weather is bad and clarity has been reduced.
Additionally, the increase air traffic has led to an increase in accidents relating to human error. The definition of air traffic volume in ATC is considered as the maximum number of aircraft that are permitted to enter a given sector for a given duration of time. Heavy traffic volume directly translates to a heavy workload for ATC personnel which increases the probability of errors. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is aware that supplementary manpower to ATC is at times not provided as required. The result of this failure is heavy workloads for the ATC personnel increasing the probabilities of accidents happening due to fatigue and exhaustion. Today, it is no secret that the sector of ATC control is becoming more and more complicated as a direct consequence of the ever-increasing air traffic volume globally. This, in turn, results in increased information that the ATC personnel have to analyze and make prompt decisions, while on the other hand still balancing the implication of air traffic volumes. According to Gosling (2002), this means that the personnel is exposed to new situations and significant problems that they have never been exposed to before forming the primary cause of human errors.
Controllers’ fatigue is a common factor that leads to human error. This comes as a direct consequence of an added workload to ATC staff as established by FAA. Staffing shortages, high work levels, and scheduling factors are often associated with human error in the ATC. Fatigue, on its own, is a performance-impairing factor that affects ATC personnel at any time of the day regardless of one’s duties in the ATC. In March 2011, an air controller at Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington was suspended for not responding to two aircraft that were destined to the airport. During an investigation into the weird occurrence, the controller confessed that he had fallen asleep while on duty, most disturbing is when he mentioned that he had fallen asleep a number of times. This particular controller had an experience of over twenty years, therefore, this indicates that the problem is real that need to be addressed.
Primary Data Finding
During the research into the issues of human error at the ATC, data were collected from a controller who was supposed to shed light on the issue while at the same time provide his personal view on the issue. The respondent was very cooperative and therefore doubt on the truthfulness of the information he gave can be eliminated. However, since the respondent is a controller, there is a chance that his response would be biased.
According to the information gathered, most human errors occur due to miscommunication between the controller and the plot. In some instances, pilots are impatient to wait for a response from the controller and they end up taking decisions without the input of controllers. Additionally, some pilots have a predetermined notion about situations and therefore when they make communication they want to hear what they expect, failure to which, they dispute the information given to them. This is a common cause of misinformation. Additionally, another major cause of human error is the fact that sometimes the pilots or the controller are impatient and therefore they do not listen to instructions carefully. This causes a clash of ideas and misguided decisions, hence posing a danger of occurrence of accidents.
Weather is another major cause of human error both to the controller and the pilot. Bad weather including heavy rainfall, blizzards, fog and mist usually reduce. Making decisions when the visibility is low is dangerous since it is prone to mistakes that may cost lives. Further. Extreme weather causes disruption of communication frequency, therefore, making communication process frustrating. This is also very dangerous since instructions may be distorted leading to the controller giving misguided responses which pose great dangers. Finally, in some instances, more than one pilot communicates with ATC at the same time, therefore the controller is required to make a distinction by just listening to their voices, is may lead to wrong instructions being given. This is another cause of human error which may cause confusion and unnecessary accidents. Interestingly, the responded pointed out that errors are more like to occur when there is little traffic compared to when there is huge traffic congestion.
Memory lapses is a rarely occur according to the respondent, however, it cannot be ruled out. Memory lapse is a associated with age, this implies that memory lapse occur more frequently in aging individuals compared to young individual. During the period of memory lapse, individuals cannot coordinate activities that they could initially coordinate with ease, therefore, such individuals are prone to committing errors. Memory lapse is a very dangerous situation for a controller, this is because while in this situation misguided instructions and misinterpretation is likely to occur leading to very damaging decisions. Additionally, interference from supervisors though rare can result in human error, first it create an unfavorable working environment. When unfavorable conditions in workplace occur it leads to error because of the notion that there are constant unwarrant supervision. Further it demoralizes and therefore reducing level of concentration which is a vital component in the aviation industry.
Analysis and Discussion
It is true that miscommunication is the greatest cause of human errors by both the pilots and controllers. Further, catalyzing miscommunication is bad weather, when there is so much mist and fog which reduces visibility, there is a high possibility of making misinformed decisions. Communication too is a personal attribute and individuals who are impatient and those who have predetermined opinion about situations pose a challenge to communication, therefore, increasing chances of human errors.
ATC setup is a complex combination of identical dashboard like slots, the complex structure of the integrated system may at some instances confuse the controller, this occurs to controllers with shorter periods of experience or when the concentration is low. This may also occur when an emergency situation happens and a controller panics, therefore, complicating the situation further.
A good working environment must be cultivated in the ATC in order to maintain high level of concentration and good will while on duty. It is important for supervisors to understand their staff and believe in their ability so as to combat situation where controllers fell that they are being watched over by the supervisors. A good working environment is also a determined by the remuneration and benefits that are associated with the position. Controller need to have their remuneration revised and opportunities for growth presented , this will act as motivation and therefore increasing their output.
Mitigation of the Errors
One way of fixing the problems that exist in the ATC is by replacing the aging workforce in the sector with new vibrant staff as the aging workforce directly relates to fatigue factors (Xiang, Tang, and Kang, 2014). It is natural that with age comes fatigue and the general slower response to emergencies. This is a weakness that must be addressed in the airports. Young, energetic individual usually have an interest in developing their careers and therefore, they offer more concentration to what they are performing compared to aged people. However, a proper analysis must be conducted before laying off aging staff because they have vast experience in handling emergencies.
Further, some ATCs are understaffed forcing some of them to work for long hours this is as a result of shortage of staff therefore forcing the available staff to work for long shifts. This reduces their keenness and concentration which is due to fatigue. As a result, FAA together with GCC needs to address this issue by providing a more extensive training program to hired new staff members for the ATC. There is also the need for the incorporation of fatigue countermeasures programs in the education and training module on alertness that is needed in the management of flight operations (Cho and Histon, 2012). This should also be intertwined with specific programs for maintaining the knowledge base among ATC operators and ensuring complete internalizing of the systems.
The FAA should also consider the development of a new technology that would modernize the America’s aging air traffic system that will go a long way in helping air traffic controllers to perform their jobs efficiently. The new technology should have and improved user machine interface which implies that they are more accurate and easy to interpret. The current radar trafficking system is faulty, therefore plans should be made to replace the current systems with a more accurate GPS- based system. The FAA should also look at ways to overhaul the United States national airspace system. The inception of the free-flight concept which is a new method that eliminates the use of air traffic controllers is likely to reduce human error. This system uses a strategy where parts of the airspace are dynamically reserved through the use of computers that ensure that at all times, the safe distance between aircraft is maintained.
An airport emergency can occur at any time of the day or night and in any weather condition. Common emergencies that occur in airports are those that require medical evacuation of where an aircraft is at distress mostly occurring due to inadequate fuel. In either case, proper communication and quick decision making is required in order to prevent the emergency from turning into a disaster. During an emergency, the first reaction of ATC is to communicate with the pilot in charge to ascertain the seriousness of the emergency. The ATC reminds the pilot that no matter what the situation is, he or she has to keep flying the plane in the right direction. As soon as the situation of the emergency has been established, the ATC will try to work with the pilot to see how well the emergency can be handled. At the same time, the ATC establishes a direct link between the emergency aircraft and the ARFF IC with the purpose of providing critical information about the emergency aircraft status. The ARFC IC will then take charge and relay information to the pilot about the plane that needs emergency services providing more information such as; if any evacuation is needed as well as potential hazards that the pilot may face (Kharchenko, Shmelova, and Sikirda, 2012). The ATC will then instruct the pilot of the emergency aircraft together with the ARFF IC to switch to the DEF to determine the best action to be undertaken.
To secure an airfield, the ATC alerts the relevant emergency services following a pilot’s request or when the ATC determines the aircraft to be in such a danger that might need emergency attentions. The ATC can then request for a local standby contingency plan, full emergency plan, or an aircraft accident plan (Malakis, Kontogiannis, and Kirwan, 2010). A working contingency plan during an emergency will be in the form of a given airfield ATC to actively take the necessary procedures to have the air traffic and airspace responsibilities transferred from the given airfield to other nearby facilities. The contingency plan should also be able to address redundancy and resiliency that might inhibit the process of restoring operations after an incident has occurred.
In conclusion, human errors have become a leading cause of accidents in the aviation sector. They account for more than 70% of accidents with errors in ATC control tower forming part of the human errors. Air traffic controllers are essential in the aviation sector. It is their duty to ensure that there exist a safe distance between a given flying object and other objects in the airspace to prevent accidents. Some of the human errors in ATC tower occur due to the following factors; fatigue, staffing shortages, high work levels, and scheduling factors. Consequently, it is imperative to find a long-lasting solution to the problems in the ATC. These may include replacing the aging workforce in the sector with new vibrant staff as the aging workforce directly relates to fatigue factors. Advancing the technology in the control tower will also help in reducing the accidents from human errors. Additionally, emergencies occur in the airport setup, these emergencies need to be handled with precaution to prevent it from turning into an accident. At the ATC, handling of emergencies is a vital part of the entire aircraft flight management, the handling of the emergencies must follow a procedure that prevents it from becoming an accident. The first reaction of ATC is to communicate with the pilot in charge to get details of the emergency. The ATC reminds the pilot that no matter what the situation is, he or she has to keep flying the plane in the right direction. At the same time, the ATC must coordinate with relevant bodies to ensure that the emergency is handled with the seriousness it deserves. Sometimes it calls for evacuation to contain the situation. In order to secure an airfield, the ATC alerts the relevant emergency services following a pilot’s request or when the ATC determines the aircraft to be in such a danger that might need emergency attentions. The ATC can then request for local standby contingency plan, full emergency plan or an aircraft accident plan.
Chmura, W., and Malarski, M., 2008. Operational Errors in Air Traffic. Journal of Konbin, 6(3).
Cho, A., and Histon, J., 2012. Factors Affecting the Learning of a New Air Traffic Control Sector for Experienced Air Traffic Controllers. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 56(1), pp.90-94.
Gosling, G., 2002. Analysis of Factors Affecting Occurrence and Severity of Air Traffic Control Operational Errors. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 1788, pp.49-57.
Kharchenko, V., Shmelova, T., and Sikirda, Y., 2012. Modeling of Behavioral Activity of Air Navigation System’s Human-Operator in Flight Emergencies. PNAU, 51(2).
Malakis, S., Kontogiannis, T., and Kirwan, B., 2010. Managing emergencies and abnormal situations in air traffic control (part I): Taskwork strategies. Applied Ergonomics, 41(4), pp.620-627.
Moon, W., Yoo, K., and Choi, Y., 2011. Air Traffic Volume and Air Traffic Control Human Errors. Journal of Transportation Technologies, 01(03), pp.47-53.
Xiang, Z., Tang, Y., and Kang, F., 2014. A Decision Making Assist System Based on Plan Conflict Detection and Alerting for Air Traffic Controller at Aerodrome. AMM, 543-547, pp.926-929.
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