Team Resource Management and Human Factors for the 2030s:  What do we need to do now to get to where we want to be?

Team Resource Management and Human Factors for the 2030s:  What do we need to do now to get to where we want to be?

– Written by Lucy Kirkland, Head of Human Factors (HF)

Lucy Kirkland, Human Factors Lead at ANSL.

Lucy is a Human Factors expert with over 20 years’ experience in air traffic control (ATC) operations, making her a unique specialist in the field and one of the very few who combines the operational ‘user’ experience as an ATCO with both qualification and experience in Human Factors.

Lucy holds the prestigious role of joint co-chair for EUROCONTROL’s Safety Human Performance Subgroup (SHPSG), contributing to shaping the future of aviation safety practices, while also holding her MSc in Human Factors in Aviation, which she graduated from with distinction. Here are Lucy’s thoughts on the evolution of Team Resource Management and Human Factors over the upcoming decade…

A high level, quick history

Crew Resource Management (CRM) in airlines

Before the 1960s, when a plane crashed, nobody ever really looked deeply at the human involvement beyond “they made a mistake”. Not because Human Factors (HF) understanding did not exist, but because mostly something in the plane was perceived to have fallen off/broken/badly designed or simply stopped working. This was seen to be a physical reason for the accident and was therefore listed as the main causal factor. Change the design: problem solved. The human reaction to the design or the scenario faced was not routinely given in depth thought and the human in the centre of a large diverse and wide-reaching system even less so.

In the 1960 and 70s this began to change. Some serious accidents, not least the Tenerife disaster, pointed to another risk that was not being mitigated. Repeatedly, accidents were happening when the planes were perfectly serviceable and where the pilots and the air traffic controllers all knew how to do their jobs. These professional staff were deemed competent in procedures and had demonstrated such. But on the day, when they were faced with a unique or particularly unusual set of circumstances, an accident happened. Inadequate communication, lack of challenge, reaction to stress, fatigue issues, authority gradients and the absence of effective team work were among many areas, that it was now being recognised, contributed to poor outcomes.

These areas became known as non-technical skills (as opposed to the technical and physical skills of flying an aircraft) and much time and effort was made by the airline industry across the world to capture all areas which impacted safe outcomes. This work underpinned the mandatory and embedded Crew Resource Management (CRM) training that is seen today.

Team Resource Management (TRM) in Air Traffic Control

The journey in Air Traffic Control (ATC) is somewhat similar.  In the early days, equipment was rudimentary, and controllers were trained how to adapt if it failed. Again, failing to adapt was not necessarily seen as something to be understood when there was a poor outcome; the equipment caused the issue so mend the equipment and case closed. As the airline industry was charging ahead in the 1970s with CRM training concepts, those in ATC changed little. Whilst there may have been talk, nothing was formalised. Moving onto the late 1980 and 1990s, European ANSP started to work together with Eurocontrol to design a framework for TRM delivery and understanding by air traffic control staff. This began to be delivered by NATS across their UK network in the late 1990s. Today, the concept of TRM is understood by all air traffic control staff and Eurocontrol provide a robust facilitation framework that can be used by ANSP. However, the level of understanding and maturity of TRM process across the UK I feel is open to challenge.


Before I take a look at the difference in maturity of these two sectors. I think it is important to reflect on what has driven their journeys. Ultimately, the reason for training and embedding non-technical skills is to reduce error. As a side benefit, the actors involved may be more content and productive but that is not the primary aim. Error in the control tower is best avoided but rarely ends in tragedy; margins may have reduced to the thinnest of whiskers, but everyone usually manages to go home (a little wiser). Sadly, errors on an aircraft can result in much more tragic outcomes for those directly involved. I believe this difference in outcomes may have driven the speeds of journeys.

Today, CRM is mandated, assessed and part of the DNA of competent pilots. Recently the CAA in the UK published an aptly named CAP737: Flight Crew Human Factors Handbook.  A 242-page tome detailing the underpinning theory, required knowledge and effective training for non-technical skills in an aircraft.  This mature system of training and assessment has ensured that TRM and HF concepts are embedded in all that flight crew do.

What does ATC have? A fairly detailed list of Human Factors learning outcomes for initial ATCO rating training (gained right at the beginning of their careers and not required to be repeated) and once valid at a unit, an edict that Human Factors training must be part of refresher training, and this should include “Team Resource Management”.  No further details, depth of knowledge aimed for, or amount of time required to cover it is given. It “may” be demonstrated in a simulator and “should” be assessed or examined. This is the European regulation, reflected in the UK. The CAA was asked for further clarity on HF training for air traffic control staff and they provided links to the Eurocontrol guidelines for TRM training and the ICAO HF guidance for regulators. Ultimately there is nothing else available for them to provide. These guidelines are excellent (but again not specifically for ATC end users) and facilitated training is gold standard, but at some point, the air traffic control staff do need to continue to embed knowledge about ATC specific Human Factors to understand their impact on TRM (much like that has been published in CAP737 with a flight crew angle). HF knowledge includes TRM; TRM is not all HF knowledge.

Which ANSP wouldn’t want to stand up and declare that their effective reporting system (due to a healthy Just Culture which is embedded in HF and effective TRM) had not recorded one serious incident in the past 12 months and their staff were reporting that they felt happier and more relaxed than they had in a long time? Greater Human Factors understanding and more in depth and effective TRM training can deliver this. Issues are stopped at the earliest opportunity due to effective communication. Members recognise the teams that are established within the organisation and are empowered to challenge and be challenged within them without fear of judgement. Those at the sharp end understand and recognise why some decisions lead in the wrong direction and how errors may happen. If airlines reduced all CRM training to a few hours of discussion or reading once a year, there would be an outcry from the crews. I believe the reason that air traffic control staff are not shouting about this lack of training is that they still do not fully understand the benefits that good non-technical skills can bring. The “HF is just common sense” still prevails.

One way this can be done, is to really embed HF understanding and effective TRM delivery into the ATC system in a similar way that CRM is in airlines. It will not just bring better outcomes, reducing the numbers of near misses too, but drive improvements in wellbeing and contentment of air traffic control staff too.

What’s the plan?

Ultimately, in the UK today there doesn’t seem to be one for ATC staff. There are no documents currently being written or updated to support TRM and HF training delivery in the UK. Just because even the most serious ATC error usually results in near misses rather than accidents, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to strive to reduce incident numbers further (and by default the number of near misses). Additionally, the rapid technological and procedural change that is approaching air traffic control in its 12 o’clock is significant. The CAA Airspace Modernisation Strategy to 2040 states that for ANSP “It will be essential to consider Human Factors…” yet there is no further guidance from the CAA how the ANSP will. This change is happening, the role of the Air Traffic Controller will fundamentally change, and it seems the expectation is that the industry will be ready. If we do not step up, challenge and demand support for this change, it will not appear.

I am realistic that currently, due to the well-recognised ATCO shortage in the UK, there is little internal extra resource to facilitate this. It is therefore unwise for the CAA go from 0-100 with an increase of regulatory requirements. However, the harsh truth is, if the regulatory requirements do not become broader and more in depth, there will be little impactful change. Whilst most ANSP strive for gold standards, it takes a healthy budget to go further than they must. Those ANSP, with limited budgets and precarious business plans need to be pragmatic and meeting the minimum standards is all that is required. If those minimum standards increase, the justification for increased budgets for HF training will materialise. The key is for the CAA to develop a 5–10-year plan for introducing broader and more in depth standards to enable ANSP to adapt their budgets and resources appropriately.

I propose the following:

  • A UK industry working group is set up in conjunction with the CAA to review all current guidance documentation for HF and TRM training for ANSP with the aim of producing an ATC focused version of CAP737.
  • The CAA provide guidelines and effective support to ANSP for implementing the best practice as defined in this new document.
  • The CAA consult with UK ANSP regarding their thoughts on how this new best practice should be embedded into UK (EU) 2015/340, UK (EU) 2017/373 and CAP670.

If these actions are taken now, ANSP will not only be better prepared for the inevitable changes ahead but will be empowered and informed to drive more effective HF and TRM training for their frontline staff. The benefit of which will be felt across the whole aviation industry.

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