Airports and ATC: Same Team, Different Goalposts

Airport operations and air traffic control must work hand-in-hand to keep the airfield, and thus the entire airport, running smoothly. Nevertheless, these supposed close working partners in airport operations and safety may have very different priorities when it comes to efficiency optimisations. How, then, can an airport achieve superior performance where the priorities of both communities are aligned?

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Contradictory KPIs

In a relationship that can sometimes seem more like an arranged marriage, Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) and Airport Managers working at the same airport tend to look at operations from their individual silos. As each is also a highly specialised profession, there is little cross-domain movement of personnel. Inevitably, this results in both communities being somewhat oblivious to the other’s daily challenges, issues and pain points.

It doesn’t help that ATCOs and Airport Managers can have contradictory KPIs despite being on the same team. For Airport Managers, better efficiency likely equates to higher performance bonuses; for ATC, there is no prize for being the most efficient controllers. In fact, the slightest threat to flight safety becomes an absolute nightmare as the responsible ATCO will be solely culpable.

Divergent Priorities

Further complicating the relationship is the fact that management of many airports worldwide have been privatised over the years while most ANSPs and air traffic management functions remain civil services. This has caused priorities to become even more divergent: business-oriented versus non-profit oriented. In addition, the working relationship is often defined by very generic Service Level Agreements (SLA).

The intention of most civil aviation authorities in clearly separating ATC from airport operations is to create a systemic counterbalance that ensures checks and balances between safety and business interests. However, on the ground, the resulting disconnects between ATCOs and Airport Managers can stifle constructive operational optimisations. For example, why should frontline ATCOs go the extra mile of sequencing aircraft within absolute minimum separation standards just to “squeeze out” maximum available efficiency, especially when it is only the backend Airport Managers who will reap the eventual benefits?

Working out the issues

Working out the issues between both parties to reach operational optimisation for the airfield is, therefore, often a classic case of supplier relationship management. Mediation by a neutral third party who is experienced in both ATC and airport operations can help both sides get to a healthier working partnership. By considering the perspectives of both parties, the mediator can aid the development of quantifiable KPIs that measure operational performance for both ATCOs and Airport Managers. (CANSO has published recommendations for very useful KPIs (pdf).)

The challenge for most airports is in implementing a reward scheme within existing SLAs in a manner that is encouraging yet fair, particularly if the ANSP is a civil service organisation. There are more than just monetary rewards which can be established. The key to successful airfield and airport operations rests in the hands of motivated teams of ATCOs and Airport Managers that are “happily married” in a cohesive team.


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