Cognition, Technology & Work

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 541–565 | Cite as

Uncertainty management in enroute air traffic control: a field study exploring controller strategies and requirements for automation

  • Sifra CorverEmail author
  • Gudela Grote
Original Article


The management of uncertainty is a critical aspect of current as well as future air traffic control operations. This study investigated: (1) sources of uncertainty in enroute air traffic control, (2) strategies that air traffic controllers adopt to cope with uncertainty, (3) the trade-offs and contingencies that influences the adoption of these uncertainties, and (4) the requirements for system design that support controllers in following these strategies. The data were collected using a field study in two enroute air traffic control centres, involving “over the shoulder” observation sessions, discussions with air traffic controllers, and document analysis. Three types of uncertainty coping strategies were identified: reducing uncertainty, acknowledging uncertainty, and increasing uncertainty. The RAWFS heuristic (Lipshitz and Strauss in Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 69:149–163, 1997) and anticipatory thinking (Klein et al. in Anticipatory thinking, Proceedings of the eighth international NDM conference, Pacific Grove, CA, 2007) were used to identify reduction and acknowledgement strategies. Recent suggestions by Grote (Saf Sci 71:71–79, 2015) were used to further explore strategies that increase uncertainty. The study presents a new framework for the classification of uncertainties in enroute air traffic control and identified the uncertainty management strategies and underlying tactics, in context of contingencies and trade-offs between operational goals. The results showed that controllers, in addition to reducing and acknowledging uncertainty, may deliberately increase uncertainty in order to increase flexibility for other actors in the system to meet their operational goals. The study describes new tactics for acknowledging and increasing uncertainty. The findings were summarized in the air traffic controller complexity and uncertainty management model. Additionally, the results bring to light system design recommendations that allow controllers to follow these different coping strategies, including (1) the design of alerts, (2) the transparency of prediction tools, and (3) system flexibility as a requirement for acknowledging and increasing uncertainty. The results are particularly important as uncertainty is likely to increase in future operations of enroute air traffic control, requiring automation support for controllers. Implications for future air traffic management scenarios as envisioned within the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU in European ATM Master Plan, 2 eds, 2012) and NextGen (FAA in FAA’s NextGen implementation plan, 2014) operational concepts are discussed.


Uncertainty management Coping with uncertainty Air traffic control Adaptive strategies System design Naturalistic decision-making 



This project was supported by the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, “ETHIIRA Research Grant”, Project ETH-19-10-3, and was conducted at skyguide, Swiss Air Navigation Services Ltd., Switzerland. This paper represents the interpretation and viewpoint of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official position of skyguide. The authors would like to thank Joost Hamers for his support in facilitating this research and his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Furthermore, we are grateful to the controllers for volunteering in this project by coordinating the observations and allowing us to observe them during their work. We would like to thank Montserrat Mendoza and Yves Le Roux for sharing their knowledge, Claudio di Palma for his operational support, and the supervisors for facilitating our observations in the control rooms. Finally, we are greatly indebted to Tina Lynch for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SkyguideWangen bei DübendorfSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Management, Technology and EconomicsETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland

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