The Role of the Air Traffic Controller


09 Jan 2018

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Air Traffic Controller

Redesigning the Job of Air Traffic Controller


Job Design

Job design may be referred as a way in which an entire job or a set of tasks is organized. Job design helps in determining the tasks and the way they are completed. It considers the factors that influence the work and arrange the job contents and tasks so that the job becomes less risky to the employee’s life. The administrative areas involved in it are job rotation, job enlargement, task/machine pacing, work breaks and working hours (Gupta, 2007). A soundly designed job encourages a variety of good body positions and helps foster feelings of achievement and self-esteem.

Air Traffic Controllers

The people who operate the air traffic control system to accelerate and maintain an orderly and safe flow of air traffic are called the Air traffic controllers. They help in preventing mid-air collisions of the planes. The ATC’s apply such separation rules that help in keeping each aircraft at a distance from others in their area of responsibility, thus moving all aircraft efficiently throughout their airspace. Due to the presence of large responsibility on controllers in the course of performing their duty, this profession is generally observed as one of the most complex jobs, and is notoriously stressful.

Stress at Workplace

There have been drastic changes in the nature of work over the last century and still the changes are undergoing at the speed of a whirlwind. Changes inevitably bring stress. So no professional is untouched by stress, starting from a surgeon to an artist or a sales executive to a commercial pilot. Work stress poses risk to the physical health of the employee and consequently influences the health of the organization (Mathew, 2003). Job stress in the early stages can ‘rev up’ the body and improve performance in the workplace (Prasad, 2008). Though, if this condition is permitted to go free and the body is revved up further, the performance will eventually decline and the person's health will degrade (Gupta, 2007). The symptoms of the stress can be insomnia, loss of mental concentration, anxiety, absenteeism, family conflict, anger and frustration. Job stress may arise due to job insecurity, high demand of performance, technological complexities, personal or family problem and workplace culture (Stress at Work, 2008). The final consequence of this job stress is the high turnover of the efficient and knowledgeable employees (Mathew, 2003).

Air traffic controllers are an occupational group who has to manage a highly demanding job, which involves a complex series of tasks. These require a high level of knowledge and expertise, along with a high level of responsibility, with regard to risking lives and also the high economic costs of aeronautical activities.

Productivity and Turnover

As the flights run throughout the day and round the year, the air traffic control is a 24 hour and 365-days-a-year job. Only because of this reason, the controllers regularly work rotating shifts, including nights, weekends and public holidays. When the controllers are forced to work 40 hours a week instead of 32 hours a week and eight hours a shift without breaks; their efficiency and effectiveness reduces drastically. This also leads to the turnover of the controllers. The most suitable example showing the consequence of the above situation is the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981 in America. Due to the occurrence of the situations similar to the above, 89 percent controllers left the job before retirement age and about 40 percent of these left to collect disability retirement.

Historical Background of the Position and Changes that Took Place over Years

The history of air traffic control and the controller way backs to the 1930’s when the commercial air service was developed. The occurrence of some major accidents in the subsequent years reinforced their need. The pilots used to control the flight by just looking out of the window. During the 1920s and 1930s, radio telephony was begun to be used. There was a ‘Wireless Traffic Control’ by ‘control officers’. Marine radio stations were used for the purpose of air traffic communications, which were not operated by the professionals in the way they are operated now. During the 1930’s, a dedicated air traffic services organization came into being. Second World War brought the revolution in this field. With this, the new era of developments in the field of air traffic controlling started. Specific operational techniques were started being used. Controllers used to develop plans for flying with the pilot and made use of radiotelephony for it. The instrument called radars was developed to trace the existence of the planes in the air. In due course the intensity and power of radar was increased to enable the controllers with specific information to take decision.

They used to monitor through highly processed secondary surveillance radar (SSR) data. These data flows are rooted with well-defined controlled airspace and formal rules for controlling minimum separation permitted between aircrafts. Through this SSR, the controller watches call sign, displayed aircraft symbols, and height information, which are passed down from aircraft transponders. The navigation system has stirred to satellite-based aids from point source beacons. Ground-based short-term conflict alert systems are used in UK. This technique helps in warning pilots of the aircrafts coming into close area, thus reducing the work of controllers’ up to a great limit. Nowadays commercial aircrafts carry Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System, which is of great help to the pilots as well the controllers on the ground. As weather plays an important role in controlling the air traffic, weather displaying devices were also provided to them. Now they are provided with more accurate weather information displays and can ensure a very effective control on the air traffic (Brooker, 2007).

Fundamental Problems with the Current Job Design

Air traffic control is one of the most stressful jobs. With the single decision of a controller, thousands of airline passengers’ lives can be affected. This results in the ulcers, heart conditions, hypertension and alcoholism among controllers. The chief sources of stress being reported by air traffic controllers are associated to two aspects. They are the operative aspect of their job and the organizational structures. The most important factors in the former case are the time pressure, peaks of traffic load, resolving variances in the use of rules and the limitations and consistency of equipments. The factors, which are related to organizational structure, are chiefly concerned with the unfavorable working conditions, shift schedules (particularly night work), role conflicts and a lack of control over the work (Air Traffic Controller Job Description, Career as a Air Traffic Controller, Salary, Employment - Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job, 2008).

Job Redesigning

Viewing the condition of the air traffic controllers and the difficulties faced by them while performing their task, their job needs to be redesigned. Job redesigning will help in improving the health and safety of the air traffic controllers as well as improve the health of the organization. The steps, which may be undertaken to redesign the air traffic controller’s job, are: holding a stress prevention program on regular intervals and making it a part of the organizational culture. Attendance in this program should be made compulsory for all air traffic controllers. Next step, which can be undertaken, is the improvement in the transportation to work, canteens and sleeping facilities. The other could be to improve the technology and the work organization. Steps can be taken to improve the job planning involved in the job as well as to enhance the reliability of the working systems. The other steps in redesigning the job of the controller can be working time reduction, arranging shift-schedules keeping in mind the social and psycho-physiological criteria, arranging work teams and rest pauses aligned with load of the work and enforcing such approaches that improve the participation of the air traffic controllers in decisions concerning them.

Specifically, in the technological field, such computer software can be designed, which assists air traffic controllers. For example, more accurate computer enhanced radar will be beneficial. Such automated system can be designed and made available to the controllers, which once fed with the data relating to flight timings, will display all the further needed information to the controller. Thus, it will reduce the brainstorming exercises done by the air traffic controllers regarding the regular routs and the number of regular flights on the airport. The controllers can be provided with more efficient hearing and other communication devices to enable them transfer clear instructions, thus avoiding any decision fault. Making more use of instrument landing systems, which allows planes to make automatic landings and ensuring that planes are placed in holding patterns when airports are busy. Apart from the above things, special attention is required to be paid in the area of the structure of tasks and workplace, particularly the issues like lighting, noise, micro-climatic conditions and indoor air quality (Brooker, 2007).

Impact the New Job Design on the Organization

As a result of this, job redesign reduces much of the work load, work pressure, health hazards and turnover of the air traffic controllers. The stress prevention programs conducted by the organization will have a great impact on the performance and efficiency of the controllers and the organization. Extending their facilities of relaxing, canteen, transportation, shift redesigning and team building would motivate them to work with more vigor and efficiency, which would lead to a high organizational performance. The changes in the technology would surely enhance the performance and commitment of the controllers; reduce the stress at the work place; thus reducing the turnover of the controllers from the job (Mamoria & Gankar, 2002).

Thus, we can conclude that with the increasing pressure on the air traffic, air traffic controllers are facing many job related problems. The only solution to solve these problems is to redesign the job of the controllers. This would improve the working conditions as well as problem of health hazards in the air traffic controllers; thus improving the productivity and commitment towards the organizational goals.


  • Air Traffic Controller Job Description, Career as an Air Traffic Controller, Salary, Employment - Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job (2008). Retrieved April 12, 2008 from
  • Brooker, P. (2007). Air Traffic Safety: Continued Evolution or a New Paradigm? Retrieved April 12, 2008 from
  • Gupta, C.B. (2007). Hunan Resource Management (3rd Edition), New Delhi: Sultan Chand and Sons.
  • Mamoria, C. B & Gankar, S.V (2002). Personal Management (22nd Edition). New Delhi: Himalaya Publishing House.
  • Mathew, M.J. (2003). Fundamentals of Organizational Theory and Behavior, Jaipur: RBSA Publishers
  • Prasad, L.M. (2008). Organizational Behavior (3rd Revised). New Delhi: Sultan Chand and Sons Educational Publishers.
  • Stress at Work (2008). Retrieved April 12, 2008 from


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