Staying In Control: Five Suggestions From a Long-Distance Psychologist on the Centenary of Air Traffic Control

Twenty-five years ago, I got my first job as a human factors specialist involved in research and development for air traffic management. As a young psychologist and ergonomist, I was involved in safety, system design, and airspace projects. During a series of simulations, I first came into contact with a clan of professionals to whom I have somehow devoted most of my career: air traffic controllers. In the quarter century since, working in air navigation service providers, a consultancy, academia, and now an intergovernmental organisation, I have spent thousands of hours with controllers and practically every profession that affects the work of controllers, in live operations, real-time simulations, shadowing operations, classrooms, conferences, and workshops. I even found myself – a non-controller – as the editor of HindSight magazine, read mostly by air traffic controllers. Watching people walk into a typical unit, I could probably tell you which ones are the controllers. 

NATS – UK air traffic control CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I have come to understand what it means to be an air traffic controller, and the critical role that air traffic controllers play in society. I believe in the role, and would like to see it strengthened and improved. So for this centennial issue of The Controller, I offer five suggestions that have emerged from my experience of working with you. 

1. Practice openness to experience 

Perhaps you know someone who is curious, creative, imaginative, and able to see things differently from different perspectives. They are probably attentive to feelings, enjoy variety, and able to tolerate ambiguity. In psychology, this is known as ‘openness to experience’, and is one of the so-called ‘big five’ personality traits. People high on openness are most likely to adapt and thrive in the face of change. If this personality trait doesn’t seem to describe you, the good news is that personality can be changed, under three conditions. First, you have to want and intend to change your behaviour. Second, you have to believe that you can make the behavioural changes required. Third, you have to persist with the behavioural changes until they become habitual. The key word is ‘behaviour’. Research suggests that openness to experience can be enhanced by cultural activities, reading different books, learning an instrument, taking up a new hobby, developing a more active lifestyle, and paying more attention to the natural and built environment.

2. Diversify your learning

In specialised professions such as air traffic control, it can be tempting to focus only on what you are already very good at (controlling!). This brings a feeling of competency and satisfaction. The problem arises when the context of work changes and you need a different and more diverse skill set. As Richard Champion de Crespigny, Captain of QF32, remarked in HindSight magazine issue 29, “We must commit to a lifetime of learning. You must never stop learning.” In a rapidly changing world, this means learning and developing knowledge and skills about areas such as change management, safety, wellbeing, or human factors, which can be transferred to different situations and environments, even beyond air traffic management.

3. Work on acceptance 

Those who have been in this sector for a decade or four will have seen major changes to the contexts of ATC work – the legal and regulatory, the technological and the informational, the social and the cultural. Some changes are obvious, such as the change from paper strips to stripless, or from physical to virtual tower. Others have happened over a longer period, like changing attitudes to work, or the relative importance of goals relating safety, the environment, capacity, and efficiency. And more recently we have seen more volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Change will continue at greater pace, and demands a degree of acceptance. Acceptance is a basis for learning and wellbeing. It involves noticing and acknowledging what’s going on, contemplating, feeling, and appreciating. This is an active process, and we have to take time to work out which aspects of our situation are within our power to change for the better, and which aspects are not. 

4. Get involved in your future work 

This suggestion builds on the previous three. It is important to find and use your power to influence your future work. This may be via associations, projects, committees, or relationships more generally. It may concern anything that results in changes to your work: policies, procedures, hours of work, training, technology, work environment. It means paying attention to what is changing, and what needs to change, and making sure that things are not done to you, or just for you, but rather with you. It can be tempting to stay in a close-knit group of ‘like-minded’ individuals and fellow controllers. But optimising your future work means working across teams with people diverse interests, knowledge, skills, and perspectives, connected by trust, mutual support, and a sense of community. It also means advocating for those who advocate for you. Find allies inside and outside of your organisation. 

5. Look after yourself, and each other

Wellbeing has physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual aspects. We each focus on some of these, but we neglect others and tend not to realise how they relate. Personally, in a period of poor mental health due, I discovered to my surprise that physical exercise made a big difference. Some time spent reflecting on your wellbeing blindspots, and searching for ways to meet these needs, will bring great benefits. Thinking more broadly about your circle of family, friends, neighbours and colleagues, who among them can you count on to help you to adjust to new situations, and to grow? They are probably good listeners, encourage you, offer alternative perspectives on a situation, give practical support, or provide a comforting presence. And who would count you in their circle? It’s easy to put off the phone calls, the small notes of thanks and appreciation, the acts of service, the small gatherings. But thoughtfully showing and expressing care and gratitude, and going out of our way to help and support others, strengthens relationships and eases burdens on both sides. More generally, research shows that resilience is social, not just personal. 

There is the counter-intuitive lesson from these five suggestions: Staying in control involves temporarily not feeling in control. It involves becoming open to new experiences, becoming an apprentice in unfamiliar areas, accepting uncomfortable feelings about change, facing your blindspots and weaknesses, and being interdependent. 

This post is a reproduction of an article in The Controller: Journal of air traffic control, IFATCA, October 2022, page 26-27.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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