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Air Traffic Safety








Aviation Professionals in CNS/ATM: Rethinking Training Strategies for the Future




By Anthony Boje, ATNS Aviation Training Academy, South Africa

The youth today have it so easy. In my day, I had to walk five miles barefoot through the snow to get to school.

What I have not added to the apocryphal comment above is the eight-year old student I noticed entering school this morning, who was loaded down with a 10 kg mound of books and a laptop. All I took to school at that age was a pencil and a snack. In this, I was reminded that the world of learning has changed. The image of school then and now has led me to ponder how or if our ATOs  (Approved Training Organisations) are actually geared to developing air traffic safety electronics personnel (ATSEP) for the future.

When I started my career more than four decades ago, I was trained on the CNS concepts used by the ANSP, following a “traditional learning” model. Then, using an on-the-job  experiential learning process (OJT), I was developed to work on the installed equipment. The primary objective of the OJT process then was to create the skills necessary to perform routine tests and measurements as well as the ability to restore the systems after failure.

With more time and experience on the equipment, following a “conceptualisation lifelong learning philosophy”1, a grasp of the system interdependencies was formed. Also, following an approximate 10000-hour rule of thumb2, full competence was achieved for each of the systems, all in about six years.

To be sure, there are two identified challenges when it comes to adopting this learning approach to the current ANSP environment, which have to do with improved CNS system reliability and the risks of employee turnover. 



Experiential learning assumes large amounts of time spent honing knowledge and skills. In a recent project, the local ANSP installed new VHF radios and one of the noticeable aspects of these radios is their almost complete lack of required routine maintenance. This, coupled with extremely long Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) figures and the use of commercial off-the-shelf components, poses the question as to when the ATSEPs are going to get the required exposure on the system to build their in-depth knowledge.

The initial answer is that surely this should be the role of the ATO. However, this same organisation’s training on VHF theory revolves around the basic operation of radio as defined in Phase 1 – Initial Training – of ICAO Doc 10057. This is followed by “Unit training”, focusing on developing skills such as measuring the transmit power output, receiver sensitivity or S/N (signal-to-noise) ratio and reloading the software. Conversely, as the BITE system on these new radios is comprehensive, some of these developed skills are probably irrelevant. It should also be noted that the OEM’s (original equipment manufacturer) training was done in a laboratory and focused only on the equipment and not the real-world operation.

Furthermore, the ANSPs must note that most OEM trainings are not based on an approved NGAP competency-based training methodology in line with ICAO Doc 9868. At the same time, the ANSP is struggling with interference zones between sites, where the individual radios are tested and found to be fully operational but the client does not receive the broadcasts. Thus, what the ATSEPs need to resolve this failure is a deep understanding of radio signals in space rather than taught theoretical knowledge on heterodyning and digital signal detection.  It should be noted that the new VHF system is only one example of a CNS technology that has a low failure rate and limited maintenance, providing the ATSEPs with reduced experiential or practical opportunities to gain skills.




Research suggests that the trend of job hopping3 is increasing with clear indications that Millennials  – born between about 1980 and 1996 –  and Gen Z – born between 1996 and about 2012 –  are significantly more likely to job hop than Gen X (1965 to 1980). With early indications that Gen Z employees will on average only spend around three years with one employer, hopping is seen as the best way of securing a promotion or for avoiding problematic work environments. These short commitment cycles enable organisations to harness up to date and diverse skills. However, in an environment with unique long learning cycles this can also result in limited, integrated system knowledge.



The original assertion is that knowledge and skills mastery require long learning cycles and given the reliability of newer systems and typical lack of training depth provided by the OEMs, there is a risk that the ATSEPs never truly gain expert knowledge. This is further complicated by the reduced time for the ANSPs to derive a return on training investment (ROI), especially in situations where the ATSEPs have short commitment cycles. ROI can motivate the ANSP to reduce costs by reducing the training of their ATSEPs while relying more on the direct support of the OEM. This move will further reduce ATSEP exposure to the detriment of the ATSEP knowledge base, thus increasing the ANSP’s reliance on the OEM. The vicious loop then encourages the ANSP to further rely on the OEM. This OEM focus results in slower failure response times leading ultimately to unfavourable safety implications for the ANSP.

Human resource management training provides strategies for improving job satisfaction and employee engagement to reduce staff turnover and encourage loyalty4. And so here, I will rather focus on the dimension of skills development. The burden is thus on the ATOs to reconsider their module orientated training offerings as well as their current training methodologies. ATOs need to develop succinct, focused, systems orientated training, which includes the relationships between integrated elements of the ATM environment.

To make sense of the complex nature of holistic thinking, the training will need to be real world orientated. This has an added benefit that the ANSP could immediately use the ATSEPs knowledge and skills after training. In this development process, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts, just to misquote Aristotle. A narrower focus will shorten formal learning time, enabling the ANSP to derive greater benefit from the potential reduced time the ATSEP is employed.

To cut the ‘nice to have’ content from training, there is, therefore, also need for the ANSP to clearly define the exact job outcomes and task expectations for the ATSEPs. Due to the dynamic nature of the workplace these outcomes would have to be regularly verified or updated. Using the job outcomes the ATO will have to develop training to address the specific ANSP needs. This new training would also have to be dynamic not only to match the changes in the CNS technical environment, but also to continually address real life scenarios.



The world is changing. If the ANSPs and ATOs do not adapt, there is a real risk that skilled, competent ATSEPs could become endangered or even extinct. According to James Clear, “Mastery in nearly any endeavour is the result of deeply understanding simple ideas, […] that is the key to success”.5


1  David Kolb: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (2014).

2  Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers – The Story of Success (2008).

3  Deborah Rivers: A Grounded theory of Millennials Job Hopping (2018).

4  R. Jano, M. Satardien & B. Mahembe: The relationship between perceived organisational support, organisational commitment and turnover intention among employees in a selected organisation in the aviation industry in SA Journal of Human Resource Management Vol. 17, No. 1. (2019).

5  James Clear: Atomic Habits (2018). ◙