Non-compliance with ATC Procedures in low traffic periods

Non-compliance with ATC Procedures in low traffic periods

What we have been informed

  • SISG secretariat has been warned by an Air Navigation Service Provider of several cases of ATCOs not complying with ATS procedures during periods of low traffic demand and complexity;
  • The phenomena is characterised by the apparent exercise of full control over the operational situation with sufficient awareness and understanding of the procedures and regulations; yet observed behaviour of “cutting corners”;

What are the potential explanations for this behaviour

  1. Inadequate procedures
    • Lack of management supervision of the need to adapt procedures to match the changing operational reality. This influences the creation of a "local code of conduct". The responsibility for adapting procedures is "silently" transferred from the managers to the ATCOs;
    • Possible transfer of existing practice of not-adhering to the procedures in demand situations into low traffic/workload situations. In this case the practice of routinely not complying with procedures “to get the job done” turns into a standard behaviour;
  2. Business pressures
    • Attempt to accommodate pressures from the management to deliver the "declared capacity";
    • Attempt to accommodate pressures from colleagues or airspace users for delivering “better service”;
  3. Convenience
    • Saving time and effort. Generally this is expressed by ATCOs reducing, when traffic/workload is low, the number of safeguards due to an overall sense of security. This is characterised by
      1. the belief they will be able to monitor the situation continuously;
      2. the belief they will have time to react;
      3. the belief that during such periods there is nothing to create a problem;
      4. the belief that colleagues will monitor and intervene if needed;
      5. not properly understanding the concept of risk - some procedures are aimed at situations and combination of factors that happen rarely - “what can go wrong normally goes right”;
  4. Professional arrogance
    • Attitude of powerfulness - the feeling that one has the ability and knowledge to do the job without “slavishly” following the procedures;

What are the potential solutions

  • Initiate structured and open discussion on the issue of intentional non-adherence to procedures, preferably sponsored by the professional organisations;
  • Improve the quality of the procedure - the procedures to be known; well documented; easily available; workable and understood. If non-adherence becomes normal practice rather than an exception, then the conclusion is that the procedures are not adequate to cope with the reality;
  • Aim at accumulating and providing to ATCOs the explicit rationale for the existence of the procedure i.e. preserving the industrial and corporate wisdom of why the procedures are designed that way. In cases where procedures are adapted for a temporary period the fact that they are different from the original should be stressed within the organisation;
  • Encourage participative design of procedures and rules, where ATCO opinion is not only elicited at the end but ATCOs are actively involved in the drafting process;
  • Provide wide awareness of the concept of risk - not-adhering to procedures is removing one of the safety barriers, and the fact that sometimes “it is working” does not mean it is safe when combining with another error or failure. What if there is a simultaneous communication failure or pilot deviation for example;
  • Strengthen the management supervision and focus the management responsibility for adapting the procedures. ATCO may be given tactical freedom to adapt the procedures, but explicitly by management approval. This defines shared responsibility - management for what can and can’t be done and ATCOs - for using the given “tactical freedom” within clearly defined limits.


© European Organisation for Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL) July 2005. This alert is published by EUROCONTROL for information purposes. It may be copied in whole or in part, provided that EUROCONTROL is mentioned as the source and to the extent justified by the non-commercial use (not for sale). The information in this document may not be modified without prior written permission from EUROCONTROL. The use of the document is at the user’s sole risk and responsibility. EUROCONTROL expressly disclaim any and all warranties with respect to any content within the alert, express or implied.


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