||Last Updated: Jul 14th, 2011 - 11:11:49
Here is an important comment I received from an air traffic controller in relation to the National Airspace system (NAS) and my posting on this website, "Why is the culture so different?"
I have edited the entry to de-identify the controller.
Dear Mr Smith,
Wandering around the internet the other night, I came across your website Dick Smith Flyer. In it, I was interested to read an article called "Why is the culture so different?". As an ex Australian ATC, and one who has no animosity towards you, I feel I would like to set the record straight.
I must start by saying that this is the "official" position of no one. I am a member of Civil Air, but I am not representing them. I am simply trying to explain the "ATC culture" in Australia from the bottom of the food chain, as it were.
In your article you state "I am told it is the “culture” - American air traffic controllers have a culture of giving service, where Australian air traffic controllers have a culture of regulation". This is essentially true, but the underlying factor is why the culture has developed that way. Aus ATCs have a culture of regulation because years of experience has shown them that strict regulation is the only way to keep their licences. The fact remains that there is no internal encouragement from AirServices management for ATCs to provide a service, actually quite the opposite. The general feeling amongst ATCs is "If I slip up, I'm out the door". This isn't to suggest that safety isn't paramount on the ATC's mind, but it certainly detracts from the ATC's enthusiasm for providing a service that isn't, in his or her mind, essential or "by the book".
As AirServices are so aggressive in their pursuit of ATCs who break or even bend a "regulation", and enough ex ATCs (myself included) who have been made examples of are still around to show "there, but for the Grace of God, go I", it is understandable that the most commonly taught phrase to ATC trainees is "Cover your own arse, because no one else will".
The current debate on the NAS is a prime example. The reason ATCs are against NAS is, in a majority of cases, purely because they see it as another potential threat to their careers. They feel that if an accident or incident were to occur because of NAS, the person facing the licensing Manager or the Magistrate won't be the Minister or your good self, but the ATC at the console at the time. I know that responsibility is part of the job, but unless an ATC has scant regard for his licence (which is highly unlikely given the background of most ATCs), he would be an idiot to do anything that increased the risk. I guarantee that if you produced a piece of paper indemnifying ATCs from all blame associated from any incident/accident attributable to NAS, you wouldn't hear a peep from the controllers.
Further in your article you ask "Why can’t controllers have a similar ethos and service culture that they do in the USA?". The answer to that question you have to look at the differences between the American system and ours. The American system is a lot more casual in a lot of respects when it comes to enforcing regulations. You only need to listen to their R/T procedure to realise that it is a system built on efficiency and not regulations. Unlike Australia, the US is heavily congested airspace where efficiency is paramount because it needs to be. In the same token, ATC Incidents are looked at in a different manner in the States than they are here. A controller in the States can do his job with confidence knowing that The Sword of Damocles isn't hanging over his head, whereas an Australian ATC is constantly being ultra conservative in his job because he doesn't want to have his head on the chopping block. To answer the question succinctly, I would say that the Australian airspace has never become congested enough to force AirServices (or whoever they were at the time) management to loosen its enforcement of the regulations in order to preserve efficiency. This isn't to say that a looser system would be less safe. I haven't compared the US vs. Aus ATS attributable accident/incident statistics, but I'm sure they would be similar. I certainly know that American ATCs are just as professional as ours are.
The average ATC is in a job that he/she loves despite the politics, and most of the realise they are earning an income they could never have managed outside Air Traffic Control. When you combine this with an employer who is quick to take that job away to give the impression that they are "keeping the skies safe", it is little wonder that a culture ruled by threat and strict regulation becomes a "culture of regulation" itself.
I hope this answers a few of your questions.