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  • Krzysztof Kalaman

You can only pick two

In the final communique after the 60th Committee Meeting of the Air Traffic Controllers European Unions Coordination (ATCEUC), held on April 26-28, 2023, in Sarajevo, we can read: "Once again, ATCEUC stresses that you can't have cheap, efficient, and safe ATS – you can only pick two."

At the same time, in the summary of the same document, we can find: "Automation, digitalization, and other trendy terms must not take the focus away from the real requirements to safely and efficiently handle the increased traffic demand: adequate ATCO staffing, improved working conditions, and effective social dialogue."

ATS... a broader context, the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system comprises people, procedures, and technology. Each of these elements influences aviation safety while also playing a significant role in the system's efficiency.

All of them, particularly human component, affect how much airlines pay for air traffic control services.

Safety... aviation, according to Annex 19 of the Chicago Convention by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), refers to "the state in which risks associated with aviation activities, related to, or in direct support of the operation of aircraft are reduced and controlled to an acceptable level.”

Risk control in aviation is a continuous process of identifying hazards and managing the probability and consequences of their occurrence (materialization). The identification of hazards relies on a combination of reactive and proactive methods. The reactive approach involves analysing past aviation incidents, also known as "learning from mistakes," with a particular focus on human errors. The proactive method involves studying the impact of changes on the system (in this case, the Air Traffic Management/ATM system) on its individual components and continuously monitoring its safety integrity. These activities include the impact on a person, and in fact on the way he performs his activities at the working position. As a result of this research, safety barriers protecting the system from identified threats are established. It is crucial to emphasize the term "identified" since there will always be unforeseen hazards that may arise only after implementing a change. In such cases, "learning from mistakes" once again becomes vital. Safety barriers may consist of additional procedures at the working position or appropriate configuration of technical tools, among others. New measures (barriers) are established when existing ones are deemed insufficient. If the cost of implementing a change outweighs its benefits, reconsideration of its implementation is necessary.

Concern for safety in aviation means numerous mechanisms aimed at effective and efficient performance of aviation operations. Together, they form the safety management system. It is incorrect, therefore, to overuse the term "safety" as a descriptor or emphasizing adjective for something in aviation. Doing so diminishes the true meaning of the word and is often exploited to capture the attention of politicians and the media.


Currently, in many industries and services, machines have become the main driver of productivity increase. Air Traffic Management (ATM), including its primary service of air traffic control, still heavily relies on human work. As long as technology does not significantly replace or substitute air traffic controllers, there will be a need to increase employment in this professional group, which means further increase in expenditures of institutions providing these services. This is especially true considering the forecasts, which predict a growth in air traffic over Europe by 50% by the year 2040.

ATM system performance is still human dependent. Therefore, the role of air navigation service providers is to minimize this dependence by continuously introducing alternative solutions. These solutions may include i.e., operational procedures unification, airspace architecture simplification, provision of the technical tools to ease the workload of controllers, etc. Anything that enhances airspace capacity and air traffic controller productivity will ultimately improve the overall efficiency of the ATM system. Even by several percentage points.

Furthermore, proper organization of work, i.e., maximizing the use of the employee's contractual working time permitted by EU and national regulations, taking into account all barriers set out in EU regulations. Naturally, without forgetting to monitor the risk to the safety of air operations.

Improved staff workload management through appropriate work organization, as a means of increasing the efficiency of the ATM system, has been and remains a major point of disagreement, and sometimes even conflict, between the management of ATC service providers and labour organizations. This is likely to continue as long as the role of air traffic controllers in the ATM system remains as significant as it is now. The regulator also does not assist these institutions in this regard. The requirements for the working time system for air traffic controllers specified in Regulation 2017/373 are general.

On the one hand, it gives ATC service providers flexibility in resource management, but on the other hand, it allows employees to express dissatisfaction with any attempt to change the work organization system. This often leads to protests, which can result in demands for increased salaries.

Increasing productivity means doing more with unchanged resources. The productivity of air traffic controllers will not increase merely through increased employment. While investment in new personnel is necessary, it should be done in a sustainable and optimal manner. Increasing employment should not be the primary means of achieving system efficiency growth. ATC service providers should be innovative and explore other available possibilities to enhance the efficiency of their services, including procedural, organizational, and technical aspects, which generate significantly lower costs in the long term.


The continuous growth of air traffic means that the demand for increasing airspace capacity usually exceeds the supply that can be provided by the service provider. To meet the need for enhancing system efficiency, two approaches are commonly used: either increasing the productivity of air traffic controllers or expanding the number of sectors and operational positions. The latter solution is simpler to implement but requires additional human resources. In times of technological progress in aviation, even rapid in some areas, basing the increase in efficiency on the multiplication of the number of personnel seems to be very expensive ... "standard".

Starting with training, which is both time-consuming and expensive. The rate of return on training new personnel depends on the training effectiveness index. The effectiveness depends on many factors: the tightness of the recruitment and selection system, the abilities of individual trainees, the uniformity of training standards, as well as on the strategy and licensing rules adopted by the air navigation service provider and the aviation authority of a given state.

Furthermore, the high labour costs of the air traffic controller profession constitute 60% to even 80% of the total costs for the ATC service provider. According to data published in the media, salaries of these professionals in some countries reached up to 20,000 EUR per month.

Additionally, in programs advocated by this professional group to "improve working conditions," there are proposals to allow these workers to retire or reduce their professional activity as air traffic controllers earlier and switch to performing non-operational tasks... not for health reasons and far before reaching retirement age. Typically, the primary goal of these proposed programs is to protect the employees' salaries from being adjusted (i.e., reduced) according to the nature of the new tasks and reduced exposure to professional stressors.

Keeping up with the demand for air traffic control service efficiency by increasing human resources is like chasing a rabbit. It is very difficult to achieve a state of saturation with human resources. Why? Once again, primarily due to the duration and effectiveness of training. Of course, it is possible to recruit a larger number of candidates so that, in the end, the desired number of licensed personnel is obtained after training. However, this implies even higher costs.

Cost efficiency, in every industry, is about accomplishing a specific task at the lowest possible cost. Its indicator is the ratio of effort to effect, which is monitored. The aim should be to reduce this proportion.

If costs are rising and service performance is still insufficient, then… where is the efficiency. It is also worth emphasizing that while the funds allocated to the development of new technologies pay off many times over, the same funds "invested" in salaries do not bring the organization long-term profits in the form of increased service efficiency.

One system, different worlds

The use of automation or optimization in the organization of work to improve the efficiency of production and service processes creates space for reducing employment costs in each entity, regardless of the industry. Just like all of us, as customers of the services we use every day, we expect them to be cheaper, not more expensive. Similarly, airlines as a customers of air traffic control services provided by air navigation service providers also expect the same. Unfortunately, airlines deal mainly with a monopolistic service delivery model, as the European Commission has not yet dotted the "i" to fully liberalize the market for these services.

EASA and Eurocontrol are working on changes to Regulation 2017/373 regarding air traffic controller working hours. Time will show which lobby prevails: the advocates of "smart" measures to increase ATM system efficiency or the supporters of "smart" measures to raise ATC service costs.

The staffing shortages in ATC, mentioned in the aforementioned ATCEUC communique, can be partly neutralized by implementing innovative measures and technical tools, without compromising air traffic safety.

It seems that ATCEUC does not recognize or does not want to acknowledge that "Automation, digitization, and other trendy terms (...)" are becoming a reality in the world of ATM, marking the end of an era where ATM relied mainly on humans. The doors for technological progress in ATM have already been opened, and these "trendy terms" will not only enhance the efficiency of the ATM system but also help maintain an adequate level of air navigation safety. "Automation, digitization, and other trendy terms (...)" are the direction of ATM transformation designed at the European level.

There is no need to choose only two out of three.

We asked ATCEUC what conditions the ATM system must meet, according to this organization, to be considered safe or unsafe. As of the publication date, we have not received a response.



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