Influence of individual experience and flight strips on air traffic controller memory

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Authors: S. Basheer Ahmed
Stan Gromelski
Carolina Zingale, PhD.

Zingale, C., Gromelski, S., Ahmed, S. B., & Stein, E. S. (1993). Influence of individual experience and flight strips on air traffic controller memory / situational awareness (DOT/FAA/CT-TN93/31). Atlantic City International Airport: Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center.


An experiment was conducted to compare situational awareness and control ability between two test conditions. One condition allowed for the active organization of aircraft information (allowed note-writing on flight strips containing directional arrows). The other did not (note-writing not allowed, no arrows on strips). Such flight strip management activities have been cited as critical for the formation and maintenance of the controllers' "picture." Participants were eight air traffic controllers with at least four years of on-the-job experience. They were tested using TRACON II, an air traffic control (ATC) simulator for the personal computer (pc) which requires keyboard-entered, rather than verbally-issued commands. Situational awareness was evaluated during intervals in which each of the test scenarios was paused and the display was blocked from view. Participants indicated the locations of all active aircraft on a paper map and reported the last command issued to each. Control performance was evaluated using a variation of the TRACON-provided scoring system. Situational awareness and control performance did not differ as a function of test condition. However, situational awareness was found to differ as a function of reported level of video-game experience. Controllers who reported lower levels of video-game experience on a pre-test questionnaire, showed improved situational awareness when they were allowed to write on the strips. Those who reported higher video-game experience maintained higher situational awareness across both conditions. Further analyses indicated that these groups differed in terms of their memory for last-issued commands (and more specifically, for last-assigned altitudes), not their memory for aircraft locations. Regardless of video-game experience, controllers reported that their ability to remember call signs in this experiment was lower than it is on the job. Having to issue commands via the keyboard, instead of verbally, may have produced this result. The implications of these results for systems requiring such interaction are discussed.