EASA Urges Refresher Competence Training For Air Traffic Controllers

generic European ATM control tower
Credit: Yorick Jansens/AFP/Getty Images

EASA has expressed concerns over reduced skill levels among air traffic controllers (ATCOs) as a result of the pandemic and suggested methods by which individual controllers and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) can ensure professional standards are maintained. 

The European safety regulator noted in a June 2 circular that the coronavirus pandemic “is having a significant effect on aviation, including ATCO training and the maintenance of ATCO competence.” 

As a result, the agency has now converted existing safety promotion material on the erosion of ATCO skills into formal guidance in advance of any ramp-up of traffic over the European summer holiday season. 

EASA said the guidance was intended to complement existing regulatory requirements by providing additional advice. 

It noted that the past year, which has seen sharply reduced levels of air traffic, may have seen ATCOs experience reduced currency and, potentially, competency. 

The agency said that several factors—including limited numbers of duty shifts, exposure to different traffic patterns (for example, no holds being required) and long periods of working combined sectors that resulting in a loss of knowledge of coordination procedures—meant that ATCOs may not have been able to maintain their operational skills and confidence.

“In addition, ATCOs are required to be up-to-date with the latest changes in airspace, procedures, and equipment. However, many recent changes may not have been experienced in the live environment because of lack of traffic,” EASA said. “Means to gain the information after an extended period of absence are a refresher or conversion training course, a briefing (self-briefing) on the specific changes and/or an on-the-job period for re-accommodation, or a combination of the last two.” 

The agency noted the key concern for the profession “is the pace at which ATCOs can regain the necessary currency and/or competences to adapt to higher levels of traffic. This concerns the frequency at which training, on the job training (OJT), simulator and classroom, can be organized and conducted in a manner which complies with prevailing health restrictions.” 

EASA said that if the recovery in traffic is smooth, “daily practice could help in refreshing competencies, complemented by theoretical and practical training about the less common scenarios, including unusual runway configurations and high traffic demand.”

The agency also noted that “consideration should also be given to introduce shift patterns that allow more staff exposure to the available traffic in order to remain current.” 

However, a sudden spurt in the recovery process could mean that there would be insufficient time for ATCOs to readapt to the new working conditions without specific training and/or mitigating measures. “In addition, rapid recovery increases the difficulty in forecasting traffic, which reduces the ANSP’s ability to plan, organize necessary training and roster sufficient ATCOs to meet the operational demand,” EASA said.

A further concern was erosion of OJT instructors’ competence after a prolonged period of not providing OJT to trainees, as little or no OJT had been conducted during the pandemic. Additionally, the way in which instructors provided OJT may not be compatible with required physical distancing measures.

The agency recommended that during periods of low traffic, ANSPs should undertake a series of measures including organizing refresher training on synthetic training devices; implementing targeted retraining after assessing with ATCOs what they regarded as the main areas requiring attention; and ensuring assessors and OJT instructors retained competence through refresher training and by prioritizing them on shift.

EASA suggested that individual ATCOs could burnish their skills by briefing themselves thoroughly before shifts; asking for simulator sessions, OJT hours or other support if they have any doubts on their competence; and using existing safety reporting schemes to identify any lack of competence. 


Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.