IG’s Report on ATC Training Fails to note Evident Problem of Personnel Needs for NextGen

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ARTICLE: FAA Is Making Progress but Improvements in Its Air Traffic Controller Facility Training Are Still Needed

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The normally omniscient Office of Inspector General has issued a report about ATC training and not surprisingly, that document has found problems with the FAA’s management of that function. The long list includes slow implementation of previously agreed to improvements, improved pre-placement training on the facility, on the job training techniques, enhanced simulation capabilities, curriculum changes and local facility tactics. These all seem to be appropriate criticisms, but the IG did not mention the need for the FAA to be more strategic in hiring and training of candidates who will be working for the next 20-30 years.

The world is aware that the FAA is redesigning how it does its ATC business by implementing the largest civil technology infrastructure in US history. That transformation is not just a shift of navigation facilities from mountain tops to satellites; perhaps a greater sea change is the role of the people working the scopes and towers. The design of the NextGen architecture changes the job from being a “controller” to a “manager.” Hilary Kramer of Forbes described this change quite well. It will be a very different job requiring different people.

Historically controllers have a mental structure called “linear thinking”; they had to be able to memorize and recall thousands of “if/then” statements to be able to guide planes through the prescribed lines across their jurisdictions. That skill set is not as appropriate for managing flights through myriad flight paths. Under NextGen, the professionals at the tower or center will respond to the flight track filed by the pilot and will monitor the aircraft’s progress as guided by the satellite. Linear thinkers will be frustrated by the new job, will not be comfortable in the absence of controlling and will not appreciate the computer’s assumption of many of the old job description.

A seminal book in the 1960s, Growing Up Absurd, made several strident arguments about reforming American education. One of the author’s theses was that education curriculum needs to reflect the skills which students will apply after their schooling is complete, not the knowledge used in the past. Taking from that theme, it seems absurd to hire people today without regard for the skills needed to perform their jobs in 5 to 10 years as automation redefines what is required of the position.

The IG’s next report ought to point out the skill sets needed for Air Traffic Managers so that the FAA should identify candidates who have those talents. Perhaps even more challenging is to define types of people who can be both controllers and then managers; maybe the transition can be formulated through training.

The IG missed the strategic implications of moving from the current environment to the radically different working world of NextGen. The FAA, criticized by the IG as being resistant to change, left to its own devices, will continue to hire as it has done in the past. The IG needs to be the catalyst for such significant transformation to the AT Manager jobs which will occupy the towers and centers.

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