Distraction implications for Air Traffic Controllers (ATCO's)


In August 2009 a series of pilot errors and a distracted Air Traffic Controller Officer (ATCO) led to a tragic plane crash in New York City that took the lives of nine people when a private plane and a tourist helicopter collided. The investigation revealed a major factor being the ATCO was involved in a personal phone call whilst on duty (The Seattle Times, 2011).

You may never have given much thought to the fact that every day you are exposed to hundreds of distractions and more importantly considered the detrimental effects they have on your performance as an ATCO? It could be deadly!

By reading this article I hope to educate you on the effects distractions have on ATCO’s and develop strategies to eliminate (when it can be) and/or cope with distractions in order to enhance air traffic safety.

Distraction Types

ATCO's have many distractions present in their workplace. Besides providing clearances and information to vehicles and aircraft as well as coordinating with other Air Traffic Control (ATC) sectors there are a number of other distractions within the ATC working environment you may not even realise.

These include audio and visual distractions from radio's, equipment alarms, phone calls (external and internal), Short Term Conflict Alerts (outside your jurisdiction), other staff members and visitors, roster/staff sickness issues, manual aircraft billing, aircraft emergencies, poor controller work position layout, cell phones and the list goes on.

ATCO’s perform complex and lengthy procedures and must maintain high levels of situational awareness. Distractions require mental effort to disregard, resolve or eliminate and the amount of effort varies depending on the duration and intensity of the distraction. Research shows humans have a finite amount of mental capacity to allocate between tasks (Smolensky & Stein, 1998). Some of the most common and engaging distractions encountered by ATCO's often have little relevance to the primary ATC role yet have proved difficult to eliminate? For example, outside callers having direct phone access to an ATCO on duty.

Are there some distractions you can think of that can be easily eliminated?

Distraction Consequences of concern to Air Traffic Controllers

As well as reducing your metal workload capacity distractions create breaks in thought and procedural processes which can cause lapses (a type of skill based error) (Tsang & Vidulich, 2003). Lapses occur when a person unintentionally fails to complete a task or action. A distraction occurring in the middle of a thought or procedural process disrupts the normal thought flow. When an ATCO resumes the process at a mid point it can be at a different stage potentially missing out a critical task. An ATC example of this would be a tower controller not obtaining a radar release for a departing aircraft because of a distraction.

According to research skill based errors are the most common type of human error comprising 66% of the total human error types (Skybrary, 2012). Most importantly lapse type errors are highly resistant to detection as there is often no immediate indication that the action has not been carried out making this error type a considerable threat to an ATCO.

It has been proven that when distractions occur it causes a disproportional increase in perceived mental workload vs the real increase in workload associated with the distraction (Smolensky & Stein, 1998). Most ATCO’s will be able to relate to a time when traffic levels have been steady and in short succession a number of phone calls or other distractions have caused a feeling of stress or being ‘swamped’.

The key factor here to realise is that it is a natural reaction to distractions, the actual workload is not as high as it appears and there is a logical reason you feel this way. Better yet by minimizing and eliminating distractions you will reduce the likelihood of this ever occurring. Below are some ways of doing this.

Ways to eliminate and mitigate distractions

Distractions to ATCO’s need to be resolved or eliminated, otherwise safety of air traffic can be affected. You may already have some of these practices in place but if not here are some methods.

1. In my opinion the most effective way of resolving and eliminating distractions is to incorporate this standard operating procedure into your work. * For phone calls or other distractions that you can control the activation of, prior to taking the call or answering an aircraft, complete in entirety the procedure you are currently working on. This will prevent your process being stopped and recommenced and minimize lapse errors.

2. Good judgement applied to your traffic priorities will also minimize lapse errors. Most commonly this can be achieved by instructing vehicles and taxiing aircraft to standby until you complete complex tasks and verify complex read backs.

3. ELIMINATING background noise and other distractions like radios, tv’s, cell phones prevent unneccesary distractions that will reduce your performance. Many organisations have policy that prevents the use of cellphones and other associated electronic devices whilst on duty. Does your team observe this requirement?

4. Attend a Team Resource Management Course. The skills and information is valuable and applies directly to managing workloads and identifying hazards in complex systems.

5. Be a good team member, many distractions come from other ATCO’s within the working environment. When you are not on position take note of your colleague’s workload and the critical processes that occur, try not to distract them during these phases.

All ATC unit environments are unique and have a variety of distractions. The most important point to take from this is that distractions can have dangerous results. The best way to minimise safety risks associated with distractions is to identify them and alongside management implement methods of eliminating them or at least minimising their affects.


Tsang & Vidulich. (2003). Principals and practice of aviation psychology. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smolensky & Stein. (1998). Human factors in Air Traffic Control. California: Academic Press.

Skybrary. (2011). Interruptions and Distractions. Retrieved 10 August, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.skybrary.aero/index.php/Interruption_or_Distraction

Skybrary. (2012). Managing Interruptions and Distractions. Retrieved 10 August, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.skybrary.aero/index.php/Managing_Interruptions_and_Distractions_%28OGHFA_BN%29

The Seattle Times. (2011). Distracted Air Traffic Controllers a dangerous symptom of workplace problems. Retrieved 10 August, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/travel/2014836014_webairtrafficcontrollers21.html

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