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Air Traffic Controllers are wired to be lazy

Canadian researchers have recently concluded that air traffic controllers are biologically wired to be lazy. Air traffic controllers were not exactly singled out by the researchers, but the statement was made about all humans.




Canadian researchers have recently concluded that air traffic controllers are biologically wired to be lazy. Air traffic controllers were not exactly singled out by the researchers, but the statement was made about all humans.

Researchers from the Simon Fraser University in Canada asked nine volunteers to wear leg braces that made walking at their usual pace more strenuous. Within minutes, each volunteer worked out how to modify their usual walking pattern to use the least energy.

The findings recently published in Current Biology really comes as no surprise, because whether we are conscious of it or not, we all have a common tendency to put as little effort into tasks as possible.

I have constantly reviewed my own actions as an air traffic controller and can site many instances where I acted or attempted to act in a manner where very little effort was expended. In fact, in the appropriate context, I often inject these experiences into lectures or presentations when I have the opportunity to do so.

One example is the small number of separation standards that I frequently used, despite the large array that is available to us all. Perhaps the airspace configuration or the characteristics of the air traffic played a part of that conspiracy, but the fact remains. Once you hone in on a few that works, you hang on to them and use repeatedly to the exclusion of the rest.

I am reminded of a quote from the founder of IBM, Tom Watson Sr., when he said “I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.”

On one occasion many years ago, on initial contact with a departing aircraft which was transiting the airspace that I was maintaining watch over, I instructed the pilot to omit a position report. The reason was simple. The report would have been made a mere 7 minutes after the initial contact, followed shortly thereafter by a report that the aircraft had reached cruising level of FL65.

There was no conflicting traffic that necessitated the report, and in keeping with “human laziness”, I had no desire to acknowledge a report that was not necessary.

The funny side of that particular event was that the veteran pilot matter-of-factually stated that he had always made that position report, and will make it despite my instruction not to. The plan backfired on me.

While working a system of shifts and in multiple air traffic services facilities, one can quickly figure out which duty period and facility is most preferable. The preferred combination of duty period and facility almost always is equivalent to the one where we expend the least effort, even if the traffic volume is relatively greater. There is no doubt that other factors may be at play here.

Within the scope of the work and rest scheme, if the opportunity arose to work that preferred duty period and facility, it would have been chosen without delay.

Case in point: while I was working as an area controller, my preference of duty period was the graveyard shift (mid-night to 8 a.m.). By comparison, this duty period was busier than the afternoon shift, but in my opinion, I exerted less energy. The added factor here was my personal circadian rhythm. I felt more alert on the graveyard shift, while the afternoon shift made me exert a lot of effort just to stay alert.

While working as an aerodrome/approach controller in a two shift system of equal length, I preferred the early shift which commenced at 5.45 a.m. The traffic level for both shifts was the same, but my circadian rhythm was more in-line with the early start and I felt like I exerted much less effort.

Notwithstanding the few examples I offered, every action I took during any period of watch was consciously or unconsciously made with the least expenditure of energy.

In retrospect, the ATC processes are actually designed in a way for us to expend little energy. Translated, the ATC system while not perfect, strives to be efficient. By extension, air traffic controllers are wired for optimum performance.

So the research by the Simon Fraser University scientists was correct when they asserted that the subconscious nervous system continuously fine-tunes movements to keep energy costs low.

In his own words, Dr Max Donelan said, “even within a well-rehearsed movement like walking, the nervous system subconsciously monitors energy use and continuously re-optimizes movement patterns in a constant quest to move as cheaply as possible.”

Even when people choose to go for a run, researchers say, their brains are hard at work in the background making it as efficient as possible.

Bill Gates was on to something when he said “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

For air traffic controllers to be labeled as lazy may not at all be a bad thing, as what we are instead doing, is really optimizing our performance. My conclusion from that research is that air traffic controllers are efficient as I have the scars to prove them.


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About Wayne Farley

Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, an aviation safety evangelist who once made my living working in the control tower. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from the aviation world. After writing "13 Characteristics of an air traffic controller" in 2010, it went viral and established me as an unofficial ambassador for ATC.

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