Learning to Control the Sky

New investments in training technology, processes, and infrastructure help students prepare for careers as air traffic controllers in the 21st century.

By Tony Gagliardo and the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution Team

To stay ahead of generational, technological, social, and economic changes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is proactively enhancing the way it trains future air traffic controllers. The training challenges are distinct: A generational shift in the workforce, a new technology-based air traffic management system, a training system in transition, an increased demand for air travel, and federal mandates are causing the FAA to adjust its training strategy and implementation plan to account for changing times and needs.

FAA’s vision is to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility, and global leadership, while staying accountable to its stakeholders, the American public. Operations performed by the air traffic control workforce directly influence the successful outcome of FAA’s vision. The training strategy is flexible and forward thinking; it takes advantage of proven training technologies and opportunities to meet the needs of a multigenerational workforce of air traffic controllers while engaging subject matter experts to tap into their years of controller knowledge.

The Need for Change

The FAA is in the midst of a generational workforce shift; as of 2008, 70 percent of air traffic controllers were eligible for retirement between 2008 and 2018. The FAA planned to backfill these jobs with 17,000 new controllers during the same period (A Plan for the Future: The Federal Aviation Administration’s 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce 2008-2017). To earn a controller certification, the rigorous training process takes up to three years. As new controllers complete their three years of training, they enter a multigenerational workforce with individuals at the beginning or latter stages of their careers. The 20-year age difference between them will require different training methods and implementation to best suit individual needs.

Air travel will more than double in the next 20 years (http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=12439), which justifies the growing need for the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), one example of the many enhancements to which the controller workforce must adapt. This system manages air traffic to improve safety, navigation, and communication with pilots; alleviates air traffic congestion to reduce flight delays; and improves aviation’s overall environmental footprint while achieving cost efficiency. In the 1950s, the controller workforce managed traffic from where they believed planes were located; today, radars serve this purpose. NextGen will allow controllers to handle increased capacity safely and is interdependent by nature; the FAA will leverage an integrated portfolio management approach rather than trying to administer NextGen as a series of individual programs and initiatives.

In addition to generational and technological demands, the FAA also responds to federal mandates from Congress and the Department of Transportation Inspector General to prepare for the future workforce needs by increasing organizational efficiencies and reducing cost. The FAA proactively stays ahead of these evolving internal and external pressures to meet the growing need for air travel while keeping all passengers safe during flight.

Inside the Office of Technical Training

Responsibility to train new air traffic controllers lies with the Office of Technical Training, within FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). This office supports more than 300 air traffic facilities that develop and implement their own training curriculum to meet unique training needs. Through programs such as the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS), Office of Technical Training helps the FAA create both individual and organizational competency for the controller workforce at the lowest cost and with a focus on people.

Building the Foundation for Future Training

To help instructors manage learning content, Office of Technical Training will develop a curriculum architecture to serve as a framework for training structure and planning, as well as invest in a FAA-wide Learning Content Management System (LCMS). The LCMS will help Office of Technical Training deliver consistent content to instructors, despite geographical location, by allowing course developers and instructors to search courses in a shared and collaborative online environment. While providing standardization to course development and content, instructors also will have the flexibility to cater the material based on their own location and circumstances. A LCMS will tailor training content to meet individual needs, thereby reducing cost and time to proficiency.

While engaging in forward thinking and creative solutions to address training challenges, Office of Technical Training will continue to collaborate with a variety of stakeholder groups to raise awareness about the FAA’s current environment and its response to evolving needs. For example, partnerships with colleges and universities in the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program, a two- and four-year non-engineering aviation degree to prepare students to become air traffic controller candidates. Office of Technical Training also partners with the United States Air Force and United States Army to implement NextGen initiatives. While service members are responsible for certain areas in the National Airspace System (NAS), they apply FAA standards in their operations.

Focused Use of Technology

It may seem that investment in technology addresses most training challenges and improves operational performance simply by providing efficiencies. FAA leadership believes that although employees can adapt to new training equipment, talent and knowledge of individual instructors are essential to the training organization’s success.

Along with expert instructors, new simulation systems also play a major role to train students. The largest simulators are the size of small rooms and envelope students in a faux airport traffic control tower overlooking an airport’s runway. The smallest include mobile devices with games that reinforce learning objectives and offer unlimited practice opportunities for students.

Use of simulators, as well as on the job training, will continue to grow in the FAA and hone skills previously introduced through e-learning and instructor-led classes.

Our Priority: Setting Controllers up for Success

The FAA is staying ahead of internal and external influences that call for the need to change by investing in training; this investment better equips the controller workforce to manage air traffic and keep passengers safe. With the right training delivered at the right time, thousands of controllers nationwide meet this goal 50,000 times every day.

Anthony (Tony) Gagliardo leads the Federal Aviation AdministrationAir Traffic Organization’s Technical Training Support Directorate, where he guides efforts to modernize and transform training for the Federal Aviation Administration’s 20,000 air traffic controllers. In addition to directing training technology infrastructure, content design and architecture, contract programs, and simulation strategy, Gagliardo oversees a $1.2 billion air traffic training support contract at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK, and at more than 300 operational facilities across the U.S. He also heads Technical Training’s quality assurance and metrics reporting initiative.Gagliardo previously managed the design and development of Delta Air Lines Flight Operations Training as part of the Research Advanced Qualification Program and Development Group. Previously, he managed several key departments in Northwest Airlines Flight Operations including the In-Flight Training, Publication and Business Development units.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is part of the U.S. Department of Transportationand is the United States national aviation authority. For more information, visit http://www.faa.gov/.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.