The Proficiency Checking of Air Traffic Controllers

  • Home 1980 The Proficiency Checking of Ai....

The Proficiency Checking of Air Traffic Controllers

19TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Toronto, Canada, 05-09 May 1980

WP No. 39

The Proficiency Checking of Air Traffic Controllers


Regular and formal checks on the proficiency of qualified air traffic controllers is not at present a widely accepted practice. Some Member Associations have quite strong objections to such checks. Many, though, have taken the opposite view and feel that proficiency checks are desirable in the profession of air traffic control. What would appear to be a basis for dispute is the form that such checks would take and above all a guaranteed confidentiality of the results of these checks. SC5 distributed a questionnaire to all MAs during 1979 to determine (i) whether any countries already had a system of proficiency checks, (ii) what forms these checks took and (iii) were they acceptable. Twenty four replies were received. SC5 is particularly indebted to the United Kingdom and Canadian Associations who provided much additional information from which many extracts have been taken.


Various terms are used to describe the system whereby the standard of a qualified controller’s work is checked at regular intervals throughout his operational career. (e.g. Proficiency Checks, Competency Checks, Performance Development Program etc.). Where such systems are in use the air traffic controllers’ associations have, in general, agreed with their management on certain procedures to be followed.

Result of Questionnaire:

Is any form of proficiency checking carried out ? YES: 8

Do you consider such checks desirable ? YES: 12  NO : 3 (1 no comment)

One of the MAs who replied NO stated that their supervisors are continually checking the controllers and that this system works very well.

Why do we need such a system of checks ?

to maintain the standards of:

(i) the controller

(ii) the ATC unit

(iii) the system as a whole

and to provide each individual controller with guidance and information as to his professional performance.

Arguments against checks :

  • fear of loss of job;
  • abuse by management;
  • dangerous to social security;
  • why change from present system?

There are no doubt more reasons why controllers come out against proficiency checks. Having qualified as a controller it is easy to get into a familiar working pattern and sometimes drift into “bad” habits. The controller’s experience usually covers up procedures which may not be entirely safe. A system of regular checks should work for the controller and not against him and protect him from unsafe procedures and habits.

The objectives of proficiency checks may be stated as:

(i)  to preserve safety in the ATC system by monitoring a controller’s performance to confirm that he can adequately perform his duties;

(ii)  to identify and examine any areas of controller performance that should be improved and make recommendations which will assist in preparing a developmental programme (DOT Canada).

Such objectives must be supported by a set of ground rules to be observed by both controllers and management. Since these checks so directly affect the controller it is mandatory that there should be a high degree of controller involvement in the evaluation and implementation stages. The employer must provide assurances regarding career aspects especially “second career” prospects for the older controller. Some MAs felt that it was sufficient that the supervisor checked his staff. It cannot be denied that this is one of the tasks of a supervisor and where a small number of staff are involved it probably works reasonably well. However, the larger the staff, the more remote becomes the supervisor from close contact with his controllers when at their working positions and consequently the requirement for a specialist. (Hereafter referred to as a Proficiency Check Officer, PCO).

The Proficiency Check Officer :

A person selected for this task of PCO must be currently rated on at least the sector or sectors on which the check is to be conducted. It is not necessary that a controller is checked on every sector he works but that the sector chosen represents a fair cross-section of the traffic complexity and number of aircraft expected to be normally handled by the controller.

The PCO will not necessarily be the man considered to be the “best” controller, nor should he be expected to handle high traffic peaks. It has to be remembered that although the PCO holds a valid rating because of his job of checking others he cannot be expected to put in as many operational hours controlling aircraft as the other controllers. It can be anticipated that the PCO devotes a minimum of five working days per month to the maintenance of his own proficiency. As a general rule the level of competency required by PCOs should compare with the average controller in the following way:

  • knowledge, co-ordination, procedures – the PCO should have the advantage;
  • general proficiency, estimating accuracy, use of equipment – the PCO should be on a par;
  • skill, because of infrequent practice the PCO may be slightly slower. He will probably control more cautiously.

Ideally the conducting of proficiency checks and the implementation of further training, where necessary, would be the sole task of a PCO. Neither would he be included in the “operations” establishment of controllers required to staff a unit. Training must be provided to those controllers selected as PCOs so as to achieve a common standard.

Relationship with the supervisor :

The day-to-day operation of the unit and the monitoring of controller functions will still be the responsibility of the supervisor. By attending debriefing sessions in an observer capacity supervisors could be kept informed of controller capabilities. Supervisors would still be responsible for completing annual appraisals. Everyday performance would still be the basis for these assessments and not the proficiency check. PCOs would have to closely co-ordinate their activities with the supervisor as shift management is the supervisor’s responsibility.

The Proficiency Check:

Confidentiality is the key word. Only in the most drastic cases, e.g. criminal negligence, should reports be passed on to higher authorities. The report on a proficiency check remains confidential to the PCO and the individual concerned. Such reports would not be available for the preparation of a controller’s annual assessment. The controller is advised well in advance when his check is to take place. There should be no question of catching people out with spot- checks.

The check itself should put emphasis on the practical abilities of the controller rather than on knowledge rarely used e.g. management of equipment, application of procedures, phraseology, co-ordination etc. It must also be relevant to the job normally performed by a particular controller. After the check there should be a full debrief and exchange of views. The supervisor may act as observer during the debrief and/or evaluation. It is important that the controller is fully aware of the report which will be made and in fact he should countersign it. The check could take the form of an on-the-job evaluation (twice yearly), monitoring of the RTF tape (annually), a knowledge test (annually) and simulation exercise (annual). It would be necessary to take all the tests at the same period. The checks would be an on-going process throughout the year.

Follow-up action :

Part of the job of the PCO will be to arrange for further recurrent training and assess the competency of the individual after retraining. When, after such recurrent training and reassessment, it is determined by the PCO that a controller is unable to qualify to the unit standard, the PCO may recommend to the Chief of the ATC unit that the controller be removed from further active control duties in that unit. Should the controller wish to appeal against his decision, he alone may authorise the opening of his file to his representatives and the appropriate aviation/employer authorities.

Evaluation and implementation of Proficiency Checks :

Controller participation in conducting sector or position task analysis, developing check lists, compiling material for open book examinations and assisting in the development of simulated exercises will greatly help toward controller acceptance. The standards which are to be achieved must be clearly defined so that all personnel are aware of the performance that they are expected to attain. The standard thus defined for a sector or position will be the qualification standard and the minimum level for checked-out personnel.

A number of controllers will be selected to conduct a task analysis of the control positions and determine the level of proficiency required for each task. A checklist of tasks to be assessed during on-the-job evaluation will be prepared. Practice evaluations using the staff who assisted in the task analysis followed by discussions will revise and verify the system so that an agreed valid checklist can be produced. The position standard and checklist will be published so that all personnel are aware of the performance level required and of those items that will be assessed during the proficiency check. On-the-job evaluations and briefings must be carried out objectively and fairly and the results considered as confidential.


A system of proficiency checks carried out objectively and fairly and above all treated confidentially is seen as being desirable by many Member Associations. Proficiency checks would preserve safety in the ATC system by monitoring a controller’s performance and identify and examine any areas of his performance that should be improved.

Controllers selected for the task of Proficiency Check Officer (PCO) will:

(i)  have to be currently rated,

(ii)  have to undergo special training

(iii)  not be considered as part of the operational personnel for staffing purposes

(iv)  be responsible for the organisation of retraining as required.

The check could take the form of:

(i)  OJT evaluation

(ii)  tape monitoring

(iii)  knowledge verification

(iv)  simulated exercises

and be carried out twice a year.

The standards to be achieved and the checklist of items to be evaluated will be made available to all controllers. Full debriefing and exchange of views will follow each evaluation. Supervisors may attend as observers. Full controller participation is necessary at all stages in the evaluation and implementation of a system of proficiency checks.

The results of proficiency checks must be considered as confidential information between the PCO and the controller.

SC5 does not feel that at this stage it can make any policy statement about proficiency checks that will be acceptable to the majority of Member Associations as IFATCA policy. However, SC5 believes that a form of proficiency checking is desirable and properly administered with due respect paid to confidentiality can serve not only to gain the recognition of the profession of the Air Traffic Controller which we seek but also to enhance the standards of the individual.


This working paper is recommended to be considered as guidance material.

Reference Documentation

SC5 questionnaire No. 2/1979

Canadian Department of Transport (Civil Aeronautics) – Performance Development Officer Program, March 1977.

Competency certification of licensed ATCOs – Civil Aviation Authority (United Kingdom), January 1979.

Last Update: September 19, 2020  

November 23, 2019   614   Jean-Francois Lepage    1980    

Comments are closed.

  • Search Knowledgebase