En Route to Better Learning

Two million airline customers choose to fly on a typical day. Because air traffic controllers manage how aircraft travel safely across the United States, it is critical that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fully trains controllers at its more than 290 air traffic control facilities.

The FAA, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the largest agency within the Department of Transportation. Of the 46,000 FAA employees, approximately 32 percent are dedicated to air traffic control and are responsible for the safe arrival and departure of more than 50 million flights per year.

The organization has trained a geographically dispersed workforce of 15,000 controllers across the United States to manage flights and keep passengers safe since its formation in 1958. However, in the next decade, approximately 11,000 controllers will reach retirement eligibility. Prior to this realization in 2005, the FAA enjoyed a stable workforce, hired in small numbers and needed only minor equipment changes.

In time, courses became outdated and misaligned with learning industry best practices. Now, the FAA is updating its training to support an influx of new talent and is capturing lessons learned from experienced air traffic professionals, such as how to handle emergencies. For the FAA to maintain a controller workforce large enough to fulfill its role managing air traffic, and adapt to how the next generation of students learns, it also had to update technical training.

The Office of Safety and Technical Training is the FAA’s centralized training organization for air traffic controllers and technicians. The organization is responsible for funding, developing and coordinating the new hire and refresher national training curriculum for controllers. Before the FAA formed a centralized technical training group in 2007, it had a model in which each operations group ran its own training. The move to a centralized model was part of a strategic effort to manage training resources during the hiring surge and aggressively train a new generation of controllers.

Training air traffic control students is a structured process. Students begin careers at the FAA knowing the facility where they will work, the type of air traffic they will manage such as takeoffs and landings, and that the training process to become a controller will take up to three years (Figure 1). Once in the training program, students complete three training stages: initial, qualification and post-certification (Figure 2). The training is predominately instructor-led, but the FAA also uses computer-based training and simulators to help students practice air traffic scenarios. With new learning methods such as remote learning available, the company has proactively reassessed the blend of training delivery methods to improve student proficiency and information retention.

Making the Best Mix
In 2011, the FAA hired more than 1,000 student controllers. A majority of students are Generation Y and have started to learn their profession differently from any previous generation. For example, simulators replaced months of shadowing certified controllers, and strategic assessments provide objective and supplemental information that instructors did not have in the previous training process. The FAA’s technical training team engages students in traditional and non-traditional formats to increase the speed and breadth of knowledge transfer.

The FAA focused on two key actions in 2011: examining the curriculum architecture and maximizing value from air traffic simulators. The goal was to reduce the cost to train each student while improving student comprehension and retention of air traffic principles.

Throughout 2011, the Office of Safety and Technical Training completed two large initiatives — a preliminary examination of the curriculum architecture, and the implementation of a new initial training course to adapt training to current challenges. First, the FAA completed a preliminary examination of the current state of the curriculum architecture in May 2011. Results suggested younger students learn information just long enough to pass the test but do not retain it long-term; this was termed “learn and dump syndrome.” Instructors had to spend significant time and effort to verify students had learned content they should have mastered during the initial training stage.

Through its preliminary examination, the FAA determined that future improvements to courses must provide students with multiple, structured paths to learn content and promote long-term retention of air traffic principles. The organization’s new blend of instructors, virtual learning and simulation, supplemented with enhanced efforts to test student knowledge, would allow instructors to identify and tailor learning objectives to areas where students need the most support.

The FAA plans to incorporate a series of benchmark tests throughout every foundational air traffic course by 2018. Because courses can span multiple weeks, instructors will administer tests after key learning objectives. To mitigate the learn and dump mentality, each test is cumulative, pulling in content from previous tests. To underscore the importance of each test, each benchmark evaluation is pass/fail; students who fail to complete a benchmark test may not progress to the next stage.

In the second large initiative, undertaken in January 2011, air traffic instructors began teaching a redesigned initial stage training course, which blended the redesigned course with computer-based training and simulators for students slated to work at en route facilities. En route controllers manage aircraft at cruising altitudes between their departure and arrival. The redesigned course used a new blend of instructor-led training with improved assessments and incorporated computer-based training and simulation to address training challenges.

Improvements included more than 30 2-D and 3-D animations embedded into the new courseware; each animation illustrates critical concepts instructors teach throughout the course, such as the required distances controllers must maintain between aircraft. The new course also contains more than 30 e-learning activities that promote knowledge retention of critical information taught in the classroom and build skills required for future training. Before the en route course redesign, course content was dated, less interactive and did not account for next-generation technology scheduled for use at en route facilities, such as using satellites to manage aircraft instead of radar stations.

Initial results from the new course more accurately identified students eligible for qualification stage training. In 2010, 95 percent of students taking the old, foundational en route course were approved to report to their assigned facility and begin the qualification stage training; the new course lowered this to 77 percent. This is a positive result for the FAA because the redesigned course enabled technical training to better identify students with a higher chance of success and those not suited for a career as a controller early in the training process. With approximately 350 students taking this course annually, identifying students early on who will succeed saves valuable resources. Measurable cost savings data will become available after students taking the redesigned course complete their qualification training in 2013.

Overall, the redesigned en route course investment enhanced the way instructors managed instruction and verified that students have the requisite skills to begin qualification stage training at their assigned facilities. The FAA raised the standards for all en route students and developed an objective and progressive assessment of a student’s capabilities. By explicitly stating evaluation criteria to the students and instructors, the company saw improved alignment between each stage of training for en route students.

Maximizing Simulators’ Value
A lone piece of equipment cannot address a student’s training challenges; however, because of the FAA’s investment in simulators, instructors across the U.S. said students demonstrate essential skills earlier than previous generations. When FAA leadership visits facilities with training simulators, training teams state a week of simulator training is the equivalent of a month of training or longer shadowing a controller with live traffic. Before simulation technology became available, controllers working under supervision in airport traffic control towers depended on live air traffic to train.

In 2011, the FAA installed two airport traffic control tower simulators at the FAA Academy — the FAA’s largest training facility — to complete a flow of investment into simulator technology during the past few years. Because of these simulators, the FAA Academy’s training team is well equipped to deal with the ebbs and flows in hiring. The academy now has the capacity to run more than 500 simulators simultaneously, enabling facilities in adjacent states to use the additional capacity to train their own students.

Measurable training results are not available, but anecdotal evidence is abundant. During interviews, FAA Academy instructors said the investment in simulators helped expose students to essential training procedures necessary for qualification training, such as lining aircraft up to land in a specific order. Instructors also can verify performance before allowing a student to continue to qualification training. If an area for improvement arises, instructors can modify scenarios to target a student’s training needs and help him or her practice specific concepts. Training supervisors and instructors at facilities across the U.S. also said they see positive difference in student success during qualification training because instructors can replay scenarios repeatedly to pinpoint and demonstrate areas of improvement to students in an interactive 2-D or 3-D environment.

As the FAA increases use of simulations in air traffic controller training, it will have access to trending data, which it can use to establish measurable results and compare against previous training years. Simulation technology investment will ensure students are able to spend the maximum amount of time with instructors in a practice-setting environment while continuing to provide the safest possible air traffic environment now and in the future.

Anthony Gagliardo is manager of the curriculum and technology group for the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Safety and Technical Training. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.