It’s 5.00 a.m. and you’re dozing on your flight as it crosses over the Scottish coastline. However, the Air Traffic Controller responsible for your aircraft is wide awake and working hard.

This, in part, is thanks to the work of our Human Factors team, whose job is to make sure the risk of human error in Air Traffic Control (ATC) is as low as possible.

Human Factors is the study of all factors in an environment which influence and determine human behaviour. Martin Cox, Principal Human Factors Specialist, describes Human Factors in its most simple terms as ‘the application of common sense to everyday things’ – something which is crucial to any industry!

The NATS Human Factors Team

NATS has one of the most respected and experienced Human Factors teams in the world. They are involved in every element of the ATC role, and in particular how they interact with technology.  Our Human Factors department comprises around 25 full time specialists, most of whom are trained psychologists and engineers who work with air traffic controllers to get the best performance whilst ensuring the highest level of safety.

Effects of fatigue

Studies have shown that fatigue has a similar effect on our performance as alcohol. Being awake for 17 hours continually in a 24 hour period is equivalent to a blood-alcohol content of 0.05% – that’s the equivalent of two glasses of wine, and is over the drink/drive limit for many European countries. With this in mind, it is crucial that we take steps to minimise the risk of fatigue affecting our Air Traffic Controllers.

Optimising human performance

Air Traffic Controllers make thousands of important decisions every day to ensure aircraft are safely separated and routed efficiently. This role relies on quick thinking and clear communication, so it is crucial that the controllers remain at their peak performance at all times. NATS takes the performance of our controllers very seriously, so with the help of our Human Factors specialists we have taken a lot of steps to prevent fatigue, including:

  • Carefully designing the working environment to help controllers stay alert. Everything from lighting levels to the design of operational workstations has been carefully evaluated to minimise distractions.
  • Implementing a fatigue toolkit, helping controllers to recognise the early signs of developing fatigue and to prevent it from affecting their performance, as well as providing suggestions on how to handle the underlying causes of fatigue at work and in their everyday lives.
  • Developing shift patterns to give controllers the opportunity to ‘recharge their batteries’. NATS’ controllers are subject to the most stringently controlled working hours and rest break rules in Europe. Each shift is strictly capped at 2 hours at the very most, with a minimum half hour break in between shifts so they are fully fit and alert for operational duties
  • Making sure that all technology is perfectly suited to the needs of the controllers. We build systems that support decision-making without taking control away from the controllers. Our top priorities are ensuring that systems are clear and easy to use, leaving no room for confusion. The less time controllers have to spend thinking about how to use the technology, the more safely and efficiently they can work.

So the next time you are nodding off on a late night flight over the UK, you can rest assured that the controllers handling your flight are wide awake, thinking clearly and keeping you safe.

Into the future

NATS’ Human Factors team are keen to share their knowledge with ANSPs and other businesses worldwide. Earlier this year, instructors from NATS delivered a very successful Human Factors course to members of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), and this course has since been accredited. The team are continuing research into finding new ways to increase the safety and efficiency of our air traffic controllers.

If you would like to discuss how Human Factors could benefit your organisation, please contact me through my author page.


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