Who can Manage the NextGen flight traffic and How to Train them should be the Senate Hearing’s Focus, not the Past

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Article: Senate grills FAA on controller training costs

Senator Claire McCaskill and the DoT IG seem to regard repeating their criticism of the training sufficiently important to hold a second hearing in six months. While Pat McNall, deputy assistant administrator for finance and management at the FAA, is an able and responsible FAA executive, if the Senate thinks that mismanagement of the contract is that critical, it would seem that calling the FAA Administrator to testify would be the appropriate tactic to make it clear that change should be immediate.

These are tactical issues. The Senate, in particular, should be focusing on strategy, on changes six years or more in the future. Today’s air traffic CONTROLLER recruitment and training must be redesigned. These skilled civil servants are hired today because they have shown acuity at memorizing series of commands to the pilots. Memorizing of “if/then” statements is an aptitude of people whose brains are characterized as linear thinkers. Controllers today “control” air traffic.

NextGen and the functionality of satellite based navigational systems pose a very different management challenge. The job of the individuals, who sit at the positions of the new computer stations, will be changed. The new architecture for aircraft routing will be open; pilots will have the ability to define the aircraft’s flight. The FAA person who communicates with the pilots will no longer CONTROL the direction, altitude, etc. of the airplanes. The tasks of this interface between the computer and the cockpit crew will be a problem-solving. The linear thinking component of ATCers will hinder the work of the NextGen “manager”; he/she will be involved in resolving difficulties between the pilot and the machine, identifying conflicts which the algorithms of the computer may not identify, helping the cockpit professionals find alternatives and the like.

These job tasks will require candidates with different wiring of the brain. Recruiting and training will be very different than those required of today’s controllers. The FAA needs to do the research to define what human capabilities best correlate with the NextGen work. Equally there needs to be research on how to train people off of the street to manage the movement of aircraft through the infinite options for flight paths of NextGen.

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