Academic journal article Human Factors

Aiding Planning in Air Traffic Control: An Experimental Investigation of the Effects of Perceptual Information Integration

Academic journal article Human Factors

Aiding Planning in Air Traffic Control: An Experimental Investigation of the Effects of Perceptual Information Integration

Article excerpt


Air traffic control equipment has changed in recent years as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has adapted its procedures to the growing volume of air traffic across the country. However, two major components of control equipment have remained constant: Specifically, generations of air traffic controllers have utilized a radar screen and flight progress strips as separate representations of aircraft entering their controlled sector and have cognitively integrated those representations. This equipment has proven to be highly beneficial and therefore forms the foundation from which any innovation to the air traffic control system should begin.

If controllers are to manage the increasing volumes of air traffic, planning will be of increasing importance. This is evidenced by recent efforts to provide controllers with plan-aiding technology -- for instance, the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET, Arthur & McLaughlin, 1998), Center-TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) Automation System (CTAS, Denery & Erzberger, 1995), and En Route Air Traffic Organizer (ERATO, Bressolle, Benhacene, Boudes, & Parise, 2000). Such interfaces offer additional functions to the controller, such as conflict detection algorithms (URET); automated traffic advisory functions for descending, sequencing, and spacing aircraft (CTAS); and decision aid tools such as filtering options and problem reminders (ERATO). The approach we took in this study was to enhance plan-aiding technology by identifying essential informational elements that support air traffic planning and determining the extent to which air traffic planning could be improved by optimizing the representation of th at information.

Air traffic controllers manage a complex flow of aircraft through their airspace. They maintain strict rules of separation between aircraft while allowing all aircraft to reach their destinations as safely and expeditiously as possible. In planning the routes for the aircraft, two forms of planning can be distinguished. Controllers make tactical plans when they make decisions that relate to the current moment; these plans involve the separation of (usually) pairs of aircraft that could soon violate the separation rules and, hence, need immediate action. They make strategic plans when their plans span longer periods (about 10 min or longer) and typically involve multiple aircraft. An examination of strategic planning in air traffic control is timely, given the concepts being proposed for the future. For instance, the creation of a strategic controller position has been discussed (N. Lawson & K. Thompson, personal communication, December 15, 1997; see also Vivona, Ballin, Green, Bach, & McNally, 1996). The prop osal provides for one person who would be responsible for a multiple-sector airspace, make decisions about traffic in that airspace, and delegate responsibility for tactical decisions to sector-level controllers. A goal of our project was to develop interface tools for a strategic controller position.

Dougherty, Gronlund, Durso, Canning, and Mills (1999) studied how air traffic controllers make strategic plans for en route traffic (high-altitude, high-speed traffic between destinations) using the radar screen and paper flight progress strips. They identified aircraft sequencing for approach to a common destination as a strategic planning task by analyzing controller verbalizations and using flight progress strips. The specific sequence for a group of aircraft is determined by many factors, such as aircraft speed, altitude, destination, and airspace restrictions. Therefore, sequencing aircraft was a complex cognitive task that involved the consideration of many aircraft over an extended period. Dougherty et al. argued that controllers could benefit from an interface that supported planning the sequences of aircraft.

We begin by outlining the relevant aspects of the traditional air traffic control environment that guided our interface design. …

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