Factors Affecting the Learning of a New Air Traffic Control Sector for Experienced Air Traffic Controllers

Cho and Histon (2012) carried out a study analyzing the factors affecting the learning of a new air traffic control sector for experienced air traffic controllers. The study was focused at addressing issues with the amount of training required to shift an experienced controller to a sector representing another area of specialization; At the same time, such minimal training within a sector would allow for increased flexibility to move staff around and address any projected staff shortage issues.

The study utilizes the concept of generic airspace. Generic airspace is a concept of airspace that requires little, if any, supplemental training and hence would provide a much wider group of sectors amongst which controllers could move [1]. However defining a variant of this concept comes with a number of variables. Sectors were considered only where they are similar enough in order to only require minimal training for a controller in order to be able to operate within similar variants. The study then recognized key factors associated with the controller training process and compared with them previous work on sector classification efforts. The authors then discuss how these factors may be used in an improved sector classification scheme to support the minimal differences approach to generic airspace [1].

Interviews were conducted with experienced air traffic controllers who had gone atleast undergone one sector change from one specialization to another during their careers. The authors aimed at identifying key factors important in learning a new airspace.

As a result, ten key factors were identified.


Ten key factors were identified from the interviews, which are ranked in the following table in order of their importance. This was deemed by the % of participants analyzing the factor and their descriptions of each sector.

Rank Factor
1 Traffic flow pattern
2 Weather conditions
3 Knowing the neighbour sectors
3 Hotspots
3 Aircraft types
4 Complexity
5 East coast vs West coast
5 Arrival / Departure flows
5 Sector area size (allowed maneuvering space)
5 Special areas e.g. Military zones (MOA)

The explanation of the importance of each factor according to the controllers is described as follows:

Traffic flow pattern: Based on classifying sectors as per the United States' National Aerospace System (NAS) and previous research conducted by one of the authors. Such examples can be an area with primarily parallel flow or an area with cross flow. Previous experience with a similar traffic flow pattern in a similar location is helpful in carrying over knowledge to the new area.

Weather conditions: Knowledge and skill required to deal with similar or extreme weather conditions is beneficial in dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Knowledge of neighbor sectors: Knowing what to expect from surrounding areas in terms of expected traffic, traffic pattern and procedures makes the move to a neighboring sector easier. Amount of training required to move to a nearby sector will be reduced as a consequence.

Hotspots: It is handy to have that knowledge of hotspots, although finding sectors sharing such hotspots may be rare.

Aircraft types: Being familiar with the capability of specific aircraft and the associated procedural requirements is universal knowledge. If the new area has similar aircraft, controllers will be quick to grasp the operation of the new sector.

Complexity: Moving from a highly complex area to a simple one will be an easier change. While moving to an area with similar complexity as the prior will provide for mental confidence as the gravity of the challenge from learning such a sector is known.

East coast vs West coast: Similar to knowledge of a neighboring sector, traffic flow pattern yet simply on a much larger scale.

Arrival/Departure flow: If the newer area has a higher index of arrival/departure flows similar to the previous one, the experience will be key in dealing with the issue.

Sector area size: Amount of maneuvering space within a sector will determine the operational conditions. Moving from a small sector to a larger one will introduce new challenges.

Special areas: Previous experience with areas such as Military Zones (MOA) will help in moving to a new sector with a similar special area.

The factors determined from the interviews were found to be in accordance with previous forms of sector classification; namely ones being based off sector complexity and traffic flow patterns. Both of were a priority consideration in the eyes of controllers. Yet the study introduced additional factors which have to be considered when determining which two sectors are similar enough to require the least amount of training.


The results should be used for determining newer and better classification system to determine the amount of training that will be required in moving a controller to a new sector. The factors will also be handy in separating the potential of the controllers and creating a database from it. Based on the previous experience of a controller, his potential to adapt faster to a new sector can be chartered. For example, a controller that may have worked in a area with increased traffic flow will be allowed by his experience to be more suitable to a wider number of sectors.

However, the study is limited as even within the prescribed factors, there may be a lot of other variables that will need to be considered. Considering too many factors to establish new classification will limit the number and therefore the effectiveness of the general sector. In addition, some of the factors mentioned above may be classified under another. For example, East coast vs West coast can be considered under general geographic measurements [1]. Or neighbouring sectors may be relatively different from each other to be a non-consideration.

As a result, it is recommended further study to be conducted to find each factor/sector's potential impact on developing a new scheme.


Research approach

Exploratory research investigating the factors affecting the learning of a new air traffic control sector for experience air traffic controllers.


10 experienced air traffic controllers were asked to assist, 6 of them retired and 4 in active duty. Each of them had experience with en route low altitude sectors and high altitude sectors. Furthermore, each participant had undergone atleast one sector transition in their career with the average number of transitions between different areas of specialization being 3. The average experience of the participants was 22 years, ranging from 14 years to 28 years.


The participants were interviewed and asked 10 questions, with 2 focusing on identifying important factors regarding sector transitions.


1. Independent variable: Differing experience of the participants. Be it the amount or the type of experience i.e. Location, type of sectors they served in, training differences in their move to a new sector.
2. Dependent variable: The nature of the 10 questions asked.
3. Confounding variable: 6 of the participants were retired. Unknown for how long they had been retired, possibly playing a factor in their judgement.


1. The study was conducted with the help of interviews of the air traffic controllers.
2. 10 interview questions were asked, with two focusing on identifying important factors regarding sector transitions.
3. Participation was on a voluntary basis and each interview was recorded with accompanying written notes for later clarification.
4. The findings from the interviews were then related to the previous work conducted in researching sector classification.

Data analysis

The original study only provided two of the questions asked and the weight of the ten selected factors based on how many participants reported the factor. The findings were further co-related to previous research done in sector classification to see its relevance and theorize improvements for a new classification system.

Generalization potential

Reasonable. All the participants had a large amount of experience, utilizing the study to research a new classification system is reasonable. However, in terms of implementing it (Provided further research), it is necessary to note that results may vary from cases to case.

1. Cho, Annie & Histon, Jonathan (2012). Factors Affecting the Learning of a New Air Traffic Control Sector for Experienced Air Traffic Controllers. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual meeting, 2012, Pages 90 - 94. ISBN 978-094528941-8/ISSN 10711813.

Contributors to this page

Joben Nijjar (2013), Massey University, New Zealand.

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