Training the Next Generation of Traffic Flow Managers

August 2014
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Human Resources Management
The job of the air traffic controller is changing rapidly, but training for new controllers has not kept pace with these changes. To address that gap, MITRE researchers created a curriculum that adds essential new skills to controllers’ core training.
Roberta Zimmerman

Over the next 10 years, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to hire approximately 10,000 new air traffic controllers—mainly to replace retiring personnel. At the same time, the FAA will be implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will require new skills in managing complex systems within the National Airspace System (NAS).

Roberta Zimmerman, a MITRE aviation engineer and researcher, saw a gap in the nation's current training programs and developed a way to fill it. "The job of an air traffic controller is changing," she says. "As some tasks are automated, controllers will put more focus on making decisions and managing traffic flows, but there is currently no foundational training offered in traffic flow management. The training occurs on the job."

Zimmerman created a MITRE research project, Matching Workforce Skills to NextGen Capabilities, to improve the training process for controllers so that new employees come to the job better prepared. She has a good perspective on the problem. By the age of 25, she was a pilot, a flight instructor, and a controller working for the FAA in the busy New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (known as the New York TRACON), with bachelor's and master's degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

A Collegiate Partnership Helps the FAA with Training Needs

Air traffic management (ATM) comprises two major operational functions: air traffic control and traffic flow management (TFM). Before joining the FAA as air traffic controllers (ATCs), most candidates develop their initial skills at the FAA's Academy in Oklahoma City, in the military, or through one of the air traffic collegiate training programs. The Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative is a partnership between the FAA and various colleges throughout the United States to provide basic ATC knowledge and some practical skills to students who want to attain a two- or four-year college degree. The curricula for ATC skill development has been honed over the years by the FAA, private industry, and the scientific community.

Training is very limited, however, for traffic management specialists, who perform TFM functions. Traffic management specialists usually start out as controllers and learn the new role on the job. The TFM job is more strategic and requires a system-wide view of the National Airspace System. For example, traffic management specialists assess weather situations around the country and plan strategic flows to reroute air traffic around storms as necessary.

On-the-job training can be inconsistent, time-consuming, and costly for the FAA due to the variety of approaches employed and variable levels of knowledge possessed by those performing the training. The FAA has recognized the need for consistent and standardized TFM training.

Proposing a New Route for Air Traffic Controller Training

What if the air traffic control curricula in universities were expanded to include a framework of TFM knowledge? Would this put new controllers further ahead on the learning curve at the beginning of their careers? How would it benefit the students, the FAA, and the national aviation community?

Pursuing answers to these questions, Zimmerman and her team designed a new theory-based curriculum. It includes TFM ideas and concepts, NextGen ideas, training in system integration and crew resource management, and the use of a Collaborative Air Traffic Management decision model. For two years, MITRE has been piloting this curriculum with upper-level college students enrolled in air traffic control programs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Community College of Beaver County (both schools taking part in the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative).

This curriculum provides the students with access to MITRE's extensive experience in aviation programs and the NAS. For example, as part of their training, students accessed MITRE's labs and prototypes, which replicate actual field tools, to complete hands-on ATM/TFM exercises.

"For the first class, we had to recreate our lab facilities at the university, which was very time consuming," Zimmerman says. "Then my team worked with another MITRE research team that was using Amazon’s cloud service to take our labs to stakeholders rather than always asking stakeholders to come to MITRE to use the labs.

"This collaboration made our lab capabilities available to the students in their own classrooms, using their own computers, via Amazon's cloud service. It worked very smoothly, and we believe that using our models and simulations helped students think strategically about the NAS and traffic flows."

Early Evidence Shows MITRE's TFM Training Methods Work

"Another important part of our research is to measure the impact of the new training methods, materials, and technologies," says Zimmerman. "We want to know if this type of training will produce controllers that progress faster and possibly move into the traffic management unit faster."

The team is working with the schools and the FAA on a longitudinal study to track and analyze the effectiveness of the training over time—following the students (with their permission) as they enter the workforce and continue in their careers.

"We have some anecdotal evidence and some early data from our classes," she adds. "For example, the students took a TFM test at the beginning of the school year and again after they'd taken the pilot class. Our students' scores improved from an average of 36% from the first test to 86% for the second test, while the students who did not take the pilot class saw no improvement and scored an average of 30% on both tests."

Coming Next: More TFM Training Tools and a Standardized Curriculum

Zimmerman's team plans to transfer the curriculum to its two partner schools so that they can continue to offer the course in the spring 2015 semester. Embry-Riddle has launched a strategic initiative to make this course part of its curriculum. The team is also planning to produce a TFM textbook to accompany the class, as well as a TFM training tool, since none currently exists.

"Our long-term plan is to transfer a proven, consistent curriculum to the FAA, other schools, and international organizations that have similar needs," Zimmerman says. "We believe that the new curriculum will compress and accelerate training so that participants will have a shorter learning curve on new technology and a better understanding of the NAS as they enter the workforce."

—by Beverly Wood and Marlis McCollum

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