Air traffic control specialist decision making

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Authors: Jean-François D'Arcy
Pamela S. Della Rocco

D'Arcy, J. F., & Della Rocco, P. S. (2001). Air traffic control specialist decision making and strategic planning – a field survey (DOT/FAA/CT-TN01/05). Atlantic City International Airport: Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center.


This study investigated Air Traffic Control Specialists' perspective regarding decision making and planning and related cognitive processes such as learning, memory, and situation awareness. The results of 100 semi-structured interviews indicated that controllers emphasize the importance of safety, situation awareness, planning skills, backup strategies, and the collective nature of their task. Participants reported that they plan their first actions and start building their mental picture prior to assuming control of their position. They indicated using flight progress strips to support their memory. Controllers described that they become more conservative when facing difficulties like high workload, fatigue, aging, and bad weather. Concerning the respective effects of experience and facility type, the more experienced participants were, the more likely they reported formulating backup plans. Terminal controllers were more likely than en route controllers to report using the first strategy that they develop instead of considering alternatives when a potential conflict is detected or when workload is high. Terminal controllers also indicated that they were less likely to wait and see when they are not sure if there is a conflict. Finally, respondents expressed a need for conflict probes, better weather information, data link communication, and better radars.