ATCOs and Professionalism

ATCOs and Professionalism

53RD ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Gran Canaria, Spain, 5-9 May 2014

WP No. 160

ATCOs and Professionalism

Presented by PLC

Summary

Professionalism is a common term used in the aviation community, especially in reference to air traffic controllers and pilots. The term professionalism is even more prominent when issues such as safety, just culture and fatigue management are discussed.

What is the definition of professionalism for air traffic controllers? Will there be a benefit or disadvantages from having an IFATCA definition for professionalism?

Introduction

1.1  Air Traffic Controller Officers (ATCOs) are recognised worldwide as qualified and competent professionals.

1.2  However, when ATCOs are in the news, it is usually about an incident or accident that has occurred and how the ATCO may have contributed to the event. In April, 2011, two aircraft landed at Washington, shortly after midnight, without ATC clearance. The only ATCO on duty was asleep. During that same year, reports from across the country came in indicating that falling asleep during a night shift was not an isolated incident (Lowy, Joan. “Wake Up! Sleeping Tower Operator Spurs FAA Policy Shift.” NBCNEWS.com. Associated Press, 6 Apr 2011. Web, Fall 2013).

1.3  In 2009, a mid-air collision between two VFR aircraft of the Hudson River occurred. At the time of the incident, the lone ATCO was involved in a personal conversation on the telephone in the control Tower.

“We have no reason to believe at this time that (this action) contributed to the accident” said then FAA Administrator, Randy Babbitt, “the laxness (is) unacceptable”.
(Bazinet, Kenneth R. “Local.” NY Daily News. 13 Aug. 2009. Web, Fall 2013)

1.4  In October of 2011, the US National Transportation Safety board (NTSB) added ‘improving the professionalism of pilots and air traffic controllers’ to its “Most Wanted” list. (The “Most Wanted” list represents the NTSB’s advocacy priorities. It is designed to increase awareness of and support for, the most critical changes needed to reduce transportations accidents and save lives). (NTSB Puts Pilot, Controller Professionalism on It’s “Most Wanted” List. ISHN, 03 Oct. 2011. Web, Fall 2013)

1.5  So a dichotomy would seem to exist where ATCOs are recognised as being professional, but a lack of perceived professionalism is frequently cited as a cause of incidents/ accidents.

Discussion

2.1 What is Professionalism

2.1.1  For ATCOs, professionalism can be described generally as “an attitude towards requirements needed to perform the job.”

2.1.2  More specifically, ATCO Professionalism could be described as the manner in which one handles themselves in day-to-day operations, in keeping within acceptable norms of behaviour.

These acceptable norms may include:

  • Relations to colleagues
  • Personnel fitness/state
  • Maintained level of knowledge and skills
  • Attitude towards airspace user and other stakeholders
  • Attitude towards peers
  • Attitude towards management

2.1.3  Personal lifestyle choices can affect professional behaviour. For example, lack of rest may result in less professional behaviours and performances.

2.1.4  Maintaining high levels of professionalism is important for the standing of Air Traffic Controllers worldwide. Professionalism is often a subjective term, influenced by cultural issues, and as a result a prescriptive framework of professional behaviour may not be appropriate.

2.1.5  According to Dale Carnegie Training “at its core, professionalism is how you conduct yourself” (“Examining “Professionalism” in the Business World.” Dale Carnegie Way Maryland and DC Metro Area. 2 Mar. 2012. Web, Fall 2013). How an ATCO conducts his/herself at work is highly individualized. However, is there a minimum level of professionalism that must be demonstrated, and if so, how is that minimum determined? What are the consequences for the absences of professionalism? As with good health, the absence of professionalism is usually more obvious than its presence (McKay, Dawn. “Professionalism.” About.com Career Planning. Web, Fall 2013).

2.1.6  Numerous sources define professionalism with characteristics that they believe make or describe one who is professional. The following is a list of characteristics of Professionalism below, excerpted from the Non-commissioned Officer Academy.

This list could apply to all professionals:

  • Demonstration of initiative
  • Positive “can do” attitude
  • Providing professional guidance to peers
  • Correcting behaviour
  • Understanding role model responsibilities
  • Actively pursuing self-development

2.1.7  Some IFATCA Member Associations have worked with or are working with their Employers to formalise programmes to enhance ATCO Professionalism. An example from the US MA of their formalised programme is attached.

2.1.8  Within some ANSPS, management and ATCOS have worked together to develop a professional charter.

Some examples may include:

  • Adhering to rules and procedures
  • Integrity
  • Keeping up to date on changes
  • Leading by good example (conduct)
  • Self-reflection
  • Mutual respect for everyone in the system
  • Reviewing rules and procedures
  • Understanding the service provided and the mission of the service provider

2.1.9 It is the opinion of PLC that working together with unit management, the ANSP, or between peers on establishing a code of professional conduct will promote acceptance and recognition of the code by all concerned.

2.1.10  There are times when people may be influenced by factors such as peer pressure, lack of effective leadership, lack of good examples, or problems outside of work. Recognition of these factors in yourself and others is part of a professional approach. Peer to peer reminders and proper role models can promote professionalism and prevent behaviour from drifting from the established norms.

2.1.11  Possible outcomes from a lack of professionalism may include:

  • Degradation of system safety
  • Loss of trust/respect from fellow ATCO’s
  • Loss of public trust

2.2 Professionalism as a negative

2.2.1 A counter argument concerns the idea that the individual ATCO is specially obligated to reach some higher standard of professional integrity to satisfy societal perceptions amongst other influences. It is suggested that professionalism is something that is created through the interplay of all components of the system rather than something that is up to the individual to deliver solely. In a world that is consistently seeking individuals to blame, there is a danger that setting up further requirements or guidelines for individual behaviour will only enforce the idea that ATCOs and other operators are individuals with freedom to choose between right and wrong.

2.2.2  This may also enhance the focus on the individual as an errant and unreliable component of the aviation system and community, and thereby, incriminate ATCOs even more, and reinforce the idea that the aviation system is about heroes and anti-heroes. For example, strict adherence to rules may not always be equal to safe performance, but not following the rules may be seen as non-conformance, and post incident as unprofessional by investigators or the media. There are situations where ATCOs are faced with problems that require them to make trade-offs especially between safety and efficiency; for example emergency situations, where it is sometimes necessary to deviate from the rules to better handle the situation? It could be argued that it is not ideal for controllers to just blindly follow the rules; but that they should be applied intelligently and to instigate change when they see that they induce goal conflicts or unsafe operations. Most of all, a controller should be able to know when to depart from the rules when required, which occasionally will happen – to use discretionary space. Simply applying the rules is not equal to safe performance.

2.2.3  This is not to suggest that ATCOs should not strive to act in a professional manner, but a reflection of the fact that non-adherence to rules is not necessarily a sign of a lack of professionalism. In the systemic approach to safety (see WP No.155, agenda item C.6.3)

“Humans are seen as the solution to provide flexible support in varying situations, leading to a robust system that can handle situations that even the system itself is not equipped to handle”.

2.2.4  Within the theoretical model of the systemic approach to safety,

“people learn to identify and overcome design flaws and functional glitches, because they can recognize the actual demands and adjust their performance accordingly, and because they interpret and apply procedures to match the conditions. People can also detect and correct when something goes wrong or when it is about to go wrong, hence intervene before the situation becomes seriously worsened. The result of that is performance variability, not in the negative sense where variability is seen as a deviation from some norm or standard, but in the positive sense that variability represents the adjustments that are the basis for safety and productivity”.

2.2.5 It was considered that as there were many different factors, and much debate regarding professionalism, there was, at present, little benefit from introducing a formal definition.

Conclusions

3.1  Professionalism can be considered as how an ATCO conducts themselves. While individualized, ATCO professionalism has some characteristics common to professionals in all fields, and some personalized specifically for the field of air traffic control.

3.2  Maintaining high levels of professionalism is important for the standing of Air Traffic Controllers worldwide. With the focus of the public on ATCOs following an incident, it is likely that professionalism will continue to be questioned.

3.3  It was however considered that there was little benefit from introducing a formal definition of Professionalism, or a prescriptive framework of professional behaviour.

Recommendations

4.1 This paper to be accepted as information.

Appendix A – NowGenpSS Summer 2011- Garth Koleszar – NATCA National Workgroup on Professionalism Co-Lead

As we move closer to the October test facility training for Professional Standards under article 52 of the 2009 CBA, it is important to think about not only where that program will take us, but also where we can all take ourselves under the concepts of professionalism.

Every NATCA bargaining unit agreement contains an article on Professional Standards. The reason for that is simple: we are all professionals. Whether it is a bargaining unit employee(BUE) in a staff position working on procedures, or a flight test pilot testing equipment, a Flight Service Specialist providing a weather briefing or an air traffic controller moving airplanes, we all work together as professionals to run the safest airspace system in the world.

Professionalism is not the task that our profession calls for us to do; it is how we do those tasks when our profession calls.

Every day, each of us is provided choices and opportunities to demonstrate our professionalism. How we think and act in those choices and opportunities that face each of us in our many daily tasks is what defines us. It not only defines us in our relation to each other, but also in our responsibility to the thousands of people who trust us all to do the best job we can do each and every day. It defines us as a professional union – an organization that works hard to create, maintain and continually instill the standards of professionalism.

The NATCA National Workgroup on Professionalism is beginning to work with all the NATCA bargaining units in the creation of Professional Standards Programs that will take place under our collective bargaining agreements. We will be able to provide a resource as each group defines its own unique program and code of professionalism in conjunction with a uniform national foundation.

I want to talk about one of those codes of professionalism, the Air Traffic Controller Code. The goal, which is contained as a core component of the NATCA/FAA collective bargaining agreement, is to promote and maintain the highest degree of professional conduct among participants.

A professional air traffic controller’s performance and actions are a demonstration of their personal commitment to safety, excellence, and upholding their oath to the public trust, most specifically to the users of the National Airspace System. They shall conduct themselves in a manner that instills trust and merits the confidence bestowed on them by the public they serve.

A professional Air Traffic Controller through his or her conduct and performance, should inspire, motivate, and provide examples of professionalism to others. The safety of the Airspace system is of the greatest importance and their performance should always demonstrate the highest standard of excellence.

A professional Air Traffic Controller accepts that their actions represent the conduct and character of all members of the profession. They shall act in a manner that brings honor and respect to the profession, establishes public trust, and sets a global standard for excellence.

If we look at each piece of the code individually, we can see that each is a critical part of our profession.

The first addresses our contract with the public that we serve. Daily, thousands of people utilize the National Airspace System and trust our commitment to their safety and our commitment to excellence. We each recognize that the public’s trust and confidence is a condition of how we uphold those commitments. How we think and act, when faced with choices and opportunities to demonstrate professionalism, determines the level of professionalism and confidence the public bestows upon us.

Our second code identifies our responsibility to the system. Each of us working together has a responsibility to maintain the safest air system in the world. This didn’t happen by accident. It happened by all of us recognizing the importance of the integrity of the system, and by making a personal commitment to achieve the highest standard of excellence. We also recognize that how we exercise this commitment impacts those around us. Our actions demonstrate our commitment to those who are new to our system. Whether it is a new trainee, a visitor to a facility, or a new user to the system, our thoughts and actions serve as an example to those who watch what we do.

The last code discusses our responsibility to our profession. How we think and act in our response to opportunities to demonstrate professionalism impacts all in that profession. No single person is the system. It is all of us together, making the right choices and making the best of an opportunity to demonstrate professionalism, which sets us apart and sets a standard of excellence.

The goal of the Professional Standards Program, which is contained as a core component of the NATCA/FAA collective bargaining agreement for the ATC bargaining unit, is to promote and maintain the highest degree of professional conduct among participants. We do that in compliance with the following Air Traffic Controller code:

  • a professional air traffic controller’s performance and actions are a demonstration of their personal commitment to safety, excellence, and upholding their oath to the public trust, most specifically to the users of the national airspace system. they shall conduct themselves in a manner that instills trust and merits the confidence bestowed on them by the public they serve.
  • a professional air traffic controller, through his or her own conduct and performance, should inspire, motivate, and provide examples of professionalism to others. The safety of the airspace system is of the greatest importance and their performance should always demonstrate the highest standard of excellence.
  • a professional air traffic controller accepts that their actions represent the conduct and character of all members of the profession. they shall act in a manner that brings honor and respect to the profession, establishes public trust, and sets a global standard for excellence.

As we talk about opportunities to demonstrate professionalism, I want to talk about a new training opportunity – Flight Deck Training (FDT).

FDT is a replacement for what used to be known as the FAM, or familiarization, program. The FAM program was halted as a result of the cockpit security requirements put in place as a result of the 9/11 attacks. The goal of NATCA has always been to achieve a return to this training opportunity. It has been nearly 10 years without this critical training component for air traffic controllers. It is a component that the pilots have been pushing for and that the NTSB has recognized as a valuable training tool.

The new FDT training is more stringent due to security requirements and more restrictive than the old program. We are limited to two round trips a year, with no consecutive trips to the same airport. We are required to complete our travel in our duty day and it cannot be used in conjunction with any form of leave, unless used to account for unused duty time on the travel day(s).

How does FDT relate to an opportunity to demonstrate professionalism? For many, it will be their first chance to access the secure area of the flight deck. It will be the first time we have met a captain and/or first officer. From the moment we get to the airport we begin identifying ourselves as air traffic controllers, and how we present ourselves through TSA or while at the gate demonstrates our professionalism. Different airlines have different requirements for how and when we board the aircraft, how we dress and conduct ourselves, and how we perform on the flight deck. How we approach these requirements builds on our professionalism for those who we meet.

This will be the first time that the majority of the passengers have had contact with an air traffic controller. While personnel in a flight uniform are fairly common on the flight deck, those in business dress are not. The focus on the flight deck is far greater than it ever was, and a question about whom the person is up with the crew is not out of the question. Take these opportunities and make the choices that exhibit the professional you are, and the ones we all represent.

With the completion of the training for the Professional Standards Committees at the three test areas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Anchorage and Chicago, in October, we will be well on our way to establishing our national program. We will take lessons learned from these three test sites and make changes as needed while we implement through the remainder of the facilities. We will continue working with the other bargaining units to establish Professional Standards under their agreements.

The Professional Standards Program is an important piece in the whole concept of professionalism. It is run by the bargaining unit, for the bargaining unit. The committee members will be your union brothers and sisters. It is an example of taking advantage of the choices and opportunities we all have, each and everyday, to promote and maintain the highest degree of professionalism.

Last Update: September 30, 2020  

May 6, 2020   798   Jean-Francois Lepage    2014    

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