The unheralded ambassadors of safe holiday travel

It will take a nationwide team of highly trained specialists to safely shuttle 42 million Americans across the skies this holiday season. 

While passengers get a first-hand look at pilots, flight attendants and ground crews, there is an elite group working intensely behind the scenes that travelers do not see: the network of 15,000 air traffic controllers responsible for coordinating the complex system of American civil, military and commercial aviation -- the safest and most efficient air traffic control system in the world. 

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This is a profession in transition. A new generation of young, tech-savvy controllers is coming up as their Baby Boomer elders retire. A top priority for the handover of responsibility is to ensure that the training protocols in place for this new workforce are tailored both for the technologies and the abilities of the new generation of controllers. 

The American air traffic control system was born in the 1930s. Initially a loose conglomeration of primitive stations, this sector transformed virtually overnight after a June 1956 mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon, which killed all 128 persons aboard both planes. The accident prompted Congress to quickly appropriate $250 million dollars to upgrade the air-traffic control system. 

Today’s system is light years ahead of where we began. Controllers guide every part of an airplane’s progress, from gate departure and taxi to takeoff, in-flight cruise, and landing. Once airborne, pilots make communication contact with the RADAR Departure Control station, an information hub issuing pilots instructions on speed, trajectory, and altitude toward their destination, using advanced air traffic systems.  Once guided to their intended destination, planes transfer communications to one of the 21 regional "en route" control centers, where controllers issue pilots control instructions at higher altitudes and at higher speeds.

Often, controllers have to re-route planes in response to inclement weather, turbulence, and other flight plan changes. All the while, control centers must coordinate flight trajectories to prevent congestion and the possibility of collision.

Information about relevant traffic and weather patterns is collected, analyzed, and distributed by the Air Traffic Control System Command Center located in Warrenton, Virginia. This facility uses sophisticated satellite and radar technologies to create a national air traffic "master plan," factoring in all military and civilian flights in the air. 

Finally, when a plane is within 40 miles of its destination, the regional RADAR Approach Control and Tower teams take over, guiding the pilot to a safe landing amidst other arrivals, departures, and complex airport surface movement. 

As you might imagine, ensuring the safety of thousands of people traveling hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet above the earth is an awesome responsibility. There's little margin for error. Indeed, the pressures of the profession are such that new air traffic controllers can't be older than 31 to begin their career and have to retire by age 56. 

The technological tools controllers use to keep planes safe and on time have advanced rapidly. Back in the '30s and '40s, they were stuck with, literally, flags and fires to communicate with pilots. Today, controllers use sophisticated computer systems that instantaneously interface with radars and satellites hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

But no matter how sophisticated the gadgets and information systems in the control centers get, the human element is the key to safety in the skies. But even as the technology deployed by controllers has rapidly advanced, their training programs have often failed to quickly incorporate new methods and techniques. They haven't adapted to the rapid pace of technological innovation taking place outside the classroom.

For instance, controller training protocols usually don't take into account the fact that younger hires already have a high degree of comfort and skill with sophisticated electronics, ranging from video and computer game controls to smart phones.

Control center culture needs to evolve to match the evolving composition of the workforce.  Incoming controllers need to be trained to use new technologies responsibly. And officials at the Federal Aviation Administration -- the body responsible for preparing the next generation of flight controllers -- need to actively solicit input from younger workers when crafting new training regimens.

Academic institutions can play a more prominent role in researching and testing promising training protocols. Government officials should welcome proven new techniques.

The hardware deployed by air traffic controllers has rapidly evolved. Training and office culture have not. This winter, tens of millions of American travelers will rely on these elite specialists to guide their planes. We need to improve their training to ensure that American aviation continues to lead the world in safety and efficiency. And officials running these programs should consider incorporating new, innovative methodologies best suited to the incoming generation of trainees.

McAuley is deputy program manager of Raytheon's Company Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution.