Post-incident withdrawal of air traffic controllers from control positions

General Findings

Responses were received from 13 ANSPs (including one military) and 1 CAA.

Incident seriousness

What are the criteria (if any), in terms of ‘seriousness’ of the incident, that might trigger withdrawal?

The matter of withdrawal is generally a subjective matter, however, ANSPs decide/consider using:

  • Severity Cat A, B, C (as per RAT)
  • Risk tolerability matrix
  • ICAO Annex 13 definition
  • Likelihood of national AAIB involvement
  • Accident
  • Effect of the incident on the controller (physical/mental condition)

There is also general recognition that many events are not of the controller’s making and they may have had no direct or indirect attribution. Nevertheless it is usually still considered prudent to relieve the controller(s) for their own benefit.

Initial Withdrawal

Is post-incident removal an automatic process or can some form of judgment be exercised?

Initial withdrawal may, again, depend on the effects on the ATCO. In nearly all cases the ATCO is withdrawn automatically – or can withdraw him/herself – pending preliminary investigation. The reasons cited for this policy include:

  • Protective measure/welfare of individual.
  • Without prejudice,
  • No blame/culpability,
  • No implication of incompetence.

Withdrawal may be for up to 3 days – pending investigation. At ‘small’ units or when a relief controller is not available, ATCOs may be left in position (provided they are ‘fit’) for short periods until a relief controller arrives. However, in one ANSP this is not the case; the ATCO is always withdrawn and traffic curtailed/suspended if no other ATCO is available to provide relief.

Judgment (to withdraw)

If judgment is used, who exercises it, the controller, supervisor, watch manager?

In the majority of ANSPs, withdrawal is often left to judgment of the Supervisor. However, the ATCO can always withdraw him/herself. Operations manager, Heads ATC etc are also involved in some cases.

Post withdrawal Suspension

What is the policy (if any) regarding the suspension of ATCOs following withdrawal e.g. automatic suspension, case-by-case basis?

Suspension of licence privileges is not always automatic and is done on a case-by-case basis according to preliminary investigation and assessment of ATC contribution.

One state does not have a suspension policy. In others ANSPs can decide but in some states cases are referred to the CAA/Regulator to make a formal decision/action.

In one state the ATCO is initially withdrawn and then not permitted to exercise the privileges of their licence even though no licence action taken. Where privileges are withdrawn it usually covers all ratings/endorsements not just those in use at the time of the incident. Checks of ATCO licence/training records may also be used to assess whether competency is in doubt.

Further administrative/re-instatement processes

Describe other post-incident administrative actions, e.g. licensing/rating action, remedial training, re-instatement procedures.

Where remedial training is undertaken, there is usually some form of proficiency check performed before controllers are released back to operational duties. ANSPs employ various panels, boards, committees etc to assess each incident and decide what, if any, further admin, licence remedial actions are necessary.

The main aim in the vast majority of ANSPs is to reintegrate the ATCO rather than to seek punishment.


What controller support processes etc are in place e.g. CISM, counselling?

  • CISM or some other form of formal counselling is available in most organisations.
  • Sometimes CISM is part of the formal investigation process and CISM personnel informed. In other cases, it is up to ATCO to approach CISM if they want assistance.
  • Informal means (chat with colleagues etc) also used as part of the support network.
  • ATCO association may also be involved.

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