Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Databases in Atc Units, Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?

Preview Question
Are there databases in Atc units? Do we really need data in Atc? What are some challenges to data generation in Atc?

For my first Master's thesis I decided to use Atcos from the CARICOM (Caribbean Community)  as part of a study on fatigue. With optimistic spirits, the knowledge of about 50 fatigue-related studies and training on my new toy - the latest statistical software, I sent out invitations to controller associations of the Caribbean and eagerly waited for the responses. Then I had a very rude awakening. 

At least 3 weeks had passed and no one had as yet responded. At the end of the fourth week I had a preliminary meeting where I must present my progress. Faced with an approaching deadline I decided to start calling the Atc units from the secretary's office. I can still recall my first conversation with one senior manager with extensive Atc background. 
"I never received your email,"he said. "I cannot simply give out data of that nature." "Besides,"he added,"I have to see if you are qualified to do a study like that". 
I had been pondering research ideas about air traffic control for several years. That was my motivation for going to Paris to study and here is someone who did not even have a BSc in Economics questioning my qualifications! I decided that I will let my supervising Profesor be the judge.  
I enjoyed his course and I liked that he had taught and befriended Nobel Prize winners*. He shared some of his experiences and encouraged me to remain undaunted by obstacles in research. I made a mental note to let the stumbling blocks become my stepping stones. I vowed that I will give my best efforts in the research of Atc. 
Shortly after, I received 2 emails, 1 from an english-speaking island and the other from a french-speaking neighbor nation. Both representatives from the local controller associations were very supportive until I closed the study. 

Does your Atc unit know how to generate and manage data?

These controllers shared their concerns and the challenges in trying to retrieve the data that I needed for the study.  I also received comments from Atcos and administrative staff in other units. To answer the following questions, I combined their comments with my previous experience in collecting data for a socioeconomic time series analysis. i/Are there databases in Atc units? ii/Do we really need data in Atc?  iii/What are some challenges to data management in Atc?

i/ There are databases in Atc but mainly for flight movements. How many B747s flew through your airspace yesterday? But do you know what is the rate of absenteeism in your Atc unit?

ii/Imagine that you are a manager and you wish to implement a decision, for example change the hours of work. Or, you are representing an Atc unit at a meeting and you are asked to speak on performance based navigation. Or, the Atc unit has the allegation floating around that absenteeism  is a huge problem. Do you know that in each instance, you need to use data evidence to validate your decisions? How many Atc units are in possession of a database to validate each of the above aspects? Has your Atc unit ever been culpable of declaring at a meeting that there are no statistics to validate a claim made at the meeting? 

iii/ Atc is not just about Air traffic control. One Atco remarked that in his unit, all the focus is on the technical aspects of Atc. Another lamented that the focus is on "fast tracking" the training of new Atcos. Each Atc unit is an organization of social assets that work together to produce safety, order and expedition. As such, data is necessary to examine the progress or the efficiency of the organization. Having managers at the helm of Atc units without the adequate training is a step in the wrong direction. The manager at the outset had been an excellent Atco. Yet he did not understand the aims of the study because he lacked the required knowledge so he was uncooperative. 
Atcos need to appreciate also that Atc is not limited to effective separation methods. The process requires differentiation of cognitive skills and teamwork. Therefore the Atc unit will be subjected to principles of behavioral economics and social interaction. In addition, the workplace is susceptible to psychological aspects. One reason for this is the extensive, coordinated action of speech, thought and vision utilised in the Atc environment. If you are an Atco reading this blog and you do not see the value of data in Atc, then do not expect your Atc unit to progress very far. The 2 controllers who volunteered their time and effort to assist in the Caribbean study, wrote that they had to repeatedly ask and remind fellow Atcos about the study. How ironic when at the time of that study, fatigue was a front-burner issue for ICAO!

Does your Atc unit know how to use or interpret data to improve organizational efficiency?  Do you  appreciate the  role of data collection?

The units that acheive remarkable organizational efficiency will be those that make the effort to improve their organizational ethics outside of unorthodox methods. Are some Atc units utilising systems that are not data friendly? If your unit is using a human resource methodology that had been inherited from government service then the unit is perhaps figuratively redressing the wounds with old bandages. That is to say, that there are Atc units who still treat with the symptoms of organizational disorder instead of the causes or baseline problems. 
One of the controllers lamented about the bureaucratic procedure in retrieving the data. If I am asked to conduct a study for your Atc unit, how many managers do I have to approach before I get a response? 
Remember the theme for next year's IFATCA conference? Satisfied controller = Safe sky. If the work unit is poorly organized, then the way of doing things is reactive or ad hoc. In such a case, Atcos would never be satisfied and that little equation, our theme for next year, would never be true. 
Friday/Saturday I will post some highlights from the study on fatigue. Have a good week everyone!

*Professor Claude Ménard, Economics of Organization, Centre d'économie de la Sorbonne

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1 comment :

  1. Sorry all! Unintentionally left out some words in the first paragraph following the last cartoon illustration. The sentence has been corrected and now reads <>