Urgent need to improve air traffic controller training

At any given moment, there are about 5,000 planes flying in American skies. This country's 15,000 air traffic controllers have a central role in getting these planes to their destinations safely and on time.

However, the air traffic control industry is facing a serious challenge. While the technologies used in modern air traffic control have advanced rapidly, the accreditation process and on-the-job training techniques have not.

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Air traffic control is a complex system of systems, with the air traffic controller always being the key link in the efficient and safe management of air traffic. With the considerable advancement of these technologies, the vast majority of controllers do their jobs without ever seeing the aircraft they're guiding. Instead, they closely monitor radar displays, which track aircraft movement provided by radar stations on the ground. That radar data is communicated digitally to controller positions hundreds -- or even thousands -- of miles away. 

But as the industry moves towards a satellite-based surveillance and navigation system, ground based radar and navigational aids will no longer be the primary data source used for separation and navigation. This new application of technology will enhance safety and increase the efficiency of the U.S aviation system by providing controllers with more accurate surveillance and more efficient routes of flight. Under a series of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiatives, air traffic control experts are currently designing more direct routes to reduce delays, reduce emissions, save fuel, and improve safety.

Yet even amid this profound technological transformation, the air traffic controllers of the future are still learning from yesterday's playbook. 

Although today's controller certification program is rigorous, that doesn’t mean it is sufficient. In part, it's resistant to change simply because it has worked so well. Administered by the FAA, this program typically lasts two to three years.  The student’s path to certification involves technically complex classroom learning and self-study, sophisticated radar and tower simulation, and live traffic, on-the-job training. That last component comprises approximately 80 percent of a candidate's training. With the exception of additional and improved simulators, the methodology employed for training new controllers has barely changed for more than 30 years. 

The new generation of air traffic controllers has spent their entire lives in a digital world. They're familiar with smartphones, tablets, and laptops and thrive on instant access to information from a variety of sources. They know today’s technology. The training for our nation’s air traffic controllers must keep pace with the latest technology and match the skills of a digital, connected workforce. This is especially critical because the FAA plans to hire nearly 12,000 new controllers over the next ten years.  

The changes required will not come about without the commitment and stewardship of public officials. It is imperative that the training system adopt up-to-date methods to train the people we’ve entrusted to operate the next generation air traffic control system. To do any less will at best maintain the current inefficiencies of today’s training system and at worst introduce unacceptable risk to overall modernization of the National Airspace. A modernized training system that takes advantage of today’s student profile is one that will be most flexible, timely, and cost effective.

Keegan leads transportation training and integration solutions at Raytheon. This division trains air traffic controllers.

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