Procedural errors in air traffic control: effects of traffic density, expertise, and automation

Aviat Space Environ Med. 2006 Jun;77(6):639-43.


Introduction: Air traffic management requires operators to frequently shift between multiple tasks and/or goals with different levels of accomplishment. Procedural errors can occur when a controller accomplishes one of the tasks before the entire operation has been completed. The present study had two goals: first, to verify the occurrence of post-completion errors in air traffic control (ATC) tasks; and second, to assess effects on performance of medium term conflict detection (MTCD) tools.

Methods: There were 18 military controllers who performed a simulated ATC task with and without automation support (MTCD vs. manual) in high and low air traffic density conditions. During the task, which consisted of managing several simulated flights in an enroute ATC scenario, a trace suddenly disappeared "after" the operator took the aircraft in charge, "during" the management of the trace, or "before" the pilot's first contact.

Results: In the manual condition, only the fault type "during" was found to be significantly different from the other two. On the contrary, when in the MTCD condition, the fault type "after" generated significantly less errors than the fault type "before." Additionally, automation was found to affect performance of junior controllers, whereas seniors' performance was not affected.

Discussion: Procedural errors can happen in ATC, but automation can mitigate this effect. Lack of benefits for the "before" fault type may be due to the fact that operators extend their reliance to a part of the task that is unsupported by the automated system.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Aviation / prevention & control*
  • Adult
  • Aircraft
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Automation
  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Man-Machine Systems
  • Military Personnel
  • Professional Competence
  • Reaction Time
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Workload*