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The issues in commercial aviation are unique to the industry, as the aircraft travels through the air and outside of the direct control of on-the-ground specialists. The current state of the industry, however, has a system of navigating the airspace and ensuring that every planes’ route is safe and efficient. Two of the response teams in this process are air traffic control (ATC) and airline operations. The former group of professionals manages the airspace and monitors the aircraft in a designated area, and the latter plans and solves problems during each flight. Together, ATC and airline operations teams are the key to people’s safety and operations control, and their communication is vital for delivering timely information. At the same time, any problems within this collaboration worsen performance and even endanger aircraft workers and passengers.
Safe Operation of Flights
As the number of flights has been continually increasing in the last two decades, the risk of accidents has also increased. According to the United Kingdom Government report, the UK did not have any fatal accidents in large and small commercial and business airplanes between 2013 and 2017 (HM Government, 2018). This compares well against the nine accidents in Europe and 20 accidents in the United States (HM Government, 2018, p. 133). Nevertheless, out of the problems that occur, about 70% of them are related to human error (HM Government, 2018). This prevalence raises the question of how the flights’ safety can be improved by changing the ways in which people responsible for the operations work.
The safety of flights depends on a variety of departments. The proper state of the aircraft is the first aspect, although it does not directly relate to flight operation. Here, risks may include cabin safety, flight controls, and runway condition (Graham, 2018). Next, the airline and airport are responsible for planning that acknowledges the current environment, weather, chosen plane, destination, and other factors (Wensveen, 2016). This data is needed to create a route for each aircraft that minimizes the risk of accidents or breakages. Similar information is also gathered by ATC, which uses it to see the best courses for each aircraft in relation to the airspace and other planes in the same space (Budd and Ison, 2020). Thus, the flights’ operation starts hours before each aircraft takes off. Moreover, the collaboration between the mentioned above entities is vital for ensuring the safety of each.
Air Traffic Control
First introduced in London in 1920, ATC is a service that monitors the airspace to prevent accidents (collisions), share vital information with pilots and organize the airflow for all aircraft in the designated area. It is crucial to note that ATC can only direct the aircraft through controlled airspace – the service is not available in places with uncontrolled airspace due to current limits of technology and law (Updegrove and Jafer, 2017).
Different organizations are responsible for ATC– their choice depends on the area of surveillance, the country’s legislation, accessibility, and other factors. For example, in the US, the military, government, and private companies can operate as ATC, depending on the land and airspace level of security (Strohmeier et al., 2018). In the UK, NATS (formerly known as National Air Traffic Services) is the main ATC service provider (Civil Aviation Authority, 2020; NATS, 2020). However, airports in the country can employ other companies to monitor the airspace from their local towers.
In commercial aviation, ATC towers are located in airports; they are the central location where controllers can see planes take off and land. From this tower, the AT controllers use a variety of devices and cameras to observe the airport’s runway, space near the airport and several nautical miles in the air (Isaac and Ruitenberg, 2017). Furthermore, controllers collect and examine flight data and use it to ensure that planes can safely operate within the controlled airspace. If the airport has only ATC towers, its workers are tasked with vectoring inbound aircraft to a position where they can land using visual aids.
However, some ATC centers also have radar control facilities that allow for better aircraft tracking outside of the immediate space around airports. In these organizations, terminal controllers can observe the traffic with special equipment (radar and terminal controls) within a radius of up to 100 or 200 nautical miles (Hrastovec and Solina, 2016). Therefore, in most developed countries, airspace coverage is high, and ATC is usually able to control significant parts of each flight.
Such data collection and continuous monitoring allow ATC to issue instructions and advisories. Pilots have to follow the instructions in order to stay in their designated air corridor and eliminate the risk of collision. However, they may disregard advisories if they determine a better way of piloting the plane (Edwards et al. 2017). Moreover, as ATC cannot control the entire flight, pilots must use their judgment when making decisions outside of the controlled airspace. Military personnel may offer some ATC in uncontrolled airspace, but this service is usually requested when an aircraft is in distress (Civil Aviation Authority, 2020).
Airline Operations Teams
As noted above, the ATC is responsible for advising pilots on how to stay on their designated route. However, they do not create the plans for each flight – ATC uses charts and data provided to them by airline operations teams. In fact, an airline operations team (AOT) has to create the flight plan and notify ATC early – in the range between two and 12 hours – in order for the route to be approved or edited. Thus, AOTs are responsible for collecting vital data as well, because they need to make the plan in the most efficient and safe way.
AOT’s goals differ from those of ATC due to the nature of its services. ATC prioritizes control over the airspace and aircraft’s location in relation to one another. AOTs work to ensure that people in the planes and on the ground are safe and that no issues occur during the flight. The first responsibility of such teams is flight scheduling – all aircraft have to enter and leave the runways without disturbing each other, and the before-mentioned issues, including refueling, poor weather conditions and maintenance, may lead to delays. In this case, AOTs have the authority to reschedule, cancel, or postpone a flight (Li et al., 2018; Young and Wells, 2019). Thus, the teams have varying types of authority over flight management.
The planning process is also filled with data collection – AOTs need to make flights efficient. Thus, they have to choose routes that will lower fuel consumption, decrease the time of the flight, lower risks and prevent human error. Apart from airspace safety, AOTs are also driven by consumer comfort and company prosperity (Huang, Nneji, and Cummings, 2019). Therefore, they have to account for losses that may occur if they choose a dangerous or inefficient route. Before take-off, AOTs also gather information about the balance and weight of the aircraft. This data is sent to the flight deck, where it is used to prognosticate the amount of fuel and to detect any potential issue early.
As one can see, AOTs balance their choices based on customer satisfaction, local regulations, and business growth. The teams incorporate a variety of specialists who work mostly in airports, as they often need to resolve problems before or during the flight. Weather changes, schedule adjustment, maintenance and other issues are a part of AOT’s responsibilities (Bruce and Mulholland, 2020). Their decisions also affect planes from other airlines; here, the collaboration between AOTs and ATC should be discussed.
The separation of responsibilities between AOTs and ATC requires the two teams to collaborate. AOTs from different airlines create the plans for their flights and send them to ATC for approval and further use. Then, ATC uses its own data to see whether the projects can be implemented and what is the best way to ensure that all flights are possible in the controlled airspace (Bruce, Gao and King, 2017). It should be acknowledged that the two services may not always agree on which plan is the best, but the authority of ATC requires the pilots to follow the service’s commands.
The conversation between AOT and ATC is an inherent and constant part of aviation. As the two teams usually utilize similar data sets, they may exchange them to show why a particular decision should be made. Weather conditions continue to play a significant role in determining how the flights will be scheduled and how the pilots need to behave while in the air (Bazargan, 2016). Differences in weather predictions can worsen the collaboration, as the two services may get different data – research suggests integrating big data and virtual mapping in order to make such data sharing better (Achenbach and Spinler, 2018; Bouarfa, Blom and Curran, 2016); Mogford et al., 2016). Technological advancements can simplify collaboration and reduce human error.
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A communication channel between AOT and ATC is necessary to eliminate such misunderstandings in a timely manner and prevent unnecessary delays or cancellations as well as accidents. Most importantly, both AOT and ATC workers should have great conversational skills to understand each other and come to the best decisions (Schopf, Stouten and Schaufeli, 2021). AOTs ensure that customers’ rights are represented, while ATC enforces the law and monitors the overall state of the local airspace.
The descriptions of the services’ roles show that ATC and AOT greatly depend on each other for data sharing and guidance. Thus, if one team were not to exist, the other would face many obstacles in maintaining a safe environment for flying. If the airlines did not have dedicated operations teams, ATC would not receive flight plans. This means that they would have no information about the aircraft that were set to enter the airspace that they navigated. In this case, the service could not control the airspace and ensure that the planes are adhering to their route and flying at a safe distance from other aircraft.
This would increase the risk of collision and endanger passengers and workers on the plane. The controlled airspace would be chaotic, increasing the stress on ATC professionals and further raising the negative impact of human error on accident rates (Edwards et al., 2017; Novak et al., 2020; Truschzinski et al., 2018). As a result, the UK could face a number of problems, especially in domestic flights.
If ATC services did not exist, AOTs would encounter similarly detrimental issues. ATC is responsible for keeping the aircraft on the route, safe from other planes and informed about weather conditions and other potential threats. Without this information, the pilots would not have much information about their location in the airspace. While AOTs could provide some weather reports, they have limited data about the sites that are outside of their designated control. ATC operates as a chain, where each link of the local control base gives all pertinent information about the flight to another part of ATC based on the location of the plane (Dmochowski and Skorupski, 2017; Richters, Schraagen and Heerkens, 2016). Thus, pilots always know in which part of the controlled airspace they are and whether they need to account for some factors that they cannot determine from their position.
The discussion of air traffic control and airline operations teams shows that the two services cannot function without one another – their duties and responsibilities are complementary. ATC receives flight plans from AOTs, which allows this service to map out the controlled airspace and ensure aircraft safety. Simultaneously, AOT collects all data about its flights, but it cannot control planes from other aircraft. If one of the services were not to exist, the other could not perform its job adequately. Thus, the interdependence of ATC and AOTs is inherent to the success of aviation globally. In the UK, one company oversees the majority of ATC, which potentially gives it the ability to streamline operations and make communication with AOTs easier. However, the relationship between the two services can be improved further with the help of technological advancements.
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