Too Much Information?

James Careless reports on the impact of aviation tracking sites and social media on Just Culture

The Web exploded with activity when Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 crashed into the Alps on Tuesday March 24. Sites such as Flightradar24.com provided detailed tracking information on the final flight path of the Airbus A320. Meanwhile, #Germanwings trended on Twitter, indicating just how many people were sharing information and speculating about the cause of the crash.

The speed with which news of the air disaster sped around the world speaks volumes to how the public is now tuning into social media apps that highlight tracking positional data or – where permissible – aircraft/tower communications. Their interest has been spurred by the global media’s relentless focus on the disappearance of Malaysian Flight MH370, and the downing of MH17 over Ukraine.

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Like it or not, controllers and airlines have no choice but to live with the increased scrutiny resulting from the public’s hunger that is fed by instant information from apps that track aircraft and make air traffic control voice communications instantly available.

The downside of this increased scrutiny is the public’s media-fed desire for quick answers and clear scapegoats to blame for such accidents. This is a desire that runs counter to the aviation’s industry’s Just Culture safety reporting initiative, where those working in operational roles are encouraged to report mistakes or system deficiencies without fear of career or legal reprisals, rather than cover them up.

The burning question for everyone in the aviation industry is this: does the public’s increasing – and usually uninformed – scrutiny motivate aviation professionals to report mistakes openly, or hide them for fear of public shaming and receiving online threats? As Air Traffic Management magazine discovered in this exclusive report, it is not an easy question to answer.

Understanding Just Culture

The Just Culture strategy is a philosophy that lies at the heart of making aviation safer, by allowing those in the industry (air traffic controllers, flight crew/pilots, and maintenance technicians) to admit their mistakes without fear of unreasonable reprisals and dismissal.

View From The Top How Just Culture Must Become Stronger In a Social Media Age So how useful can social media apps be in nurturing a Just Culture environment within air traffic control, asks Aimée Turner? Ed Sims is chief executive at Airways New Zealand and passionately believes that Just Culture standards can only be effective once they are actively owned, led and role-modelled by the industry’s leadership. As an industry leader himself he truly believes that tools such as the FlightRadar24 flight tracking app, rather than eroding Just Culture, in fact strengthen it. “If anything the glare of publically available tools - and the need for judicious context around their use - makes the need for a robust and transparent Just Culture even more imperative,” he tells Air Traffic Management.  Should an event occur and an investigation ensue, any responsible air navigation service provider will reach no conclusion until all circumstances - current, historical and predictive - can be taken into account.   “Relatively subjective ‘evidence’ on apps or websites can be useful indicators but should never be the basis of further action in isolation,” says Sims. “Publically available weather apps cannot replace metdata in NOTAMS and the same applies to actual flight records.” Sims, who spoke at the CANSO chief executive conference in Madrid in March, urged his industry peers to take proactive and visible ownership of Just Culture. For Sims, proactive incident reports are like gold to a company like Airways, enabling it to flush out, learn from, and eliminate potential problems before they do harm.  “Acknowledging the contribution of employees who make proactive reports, and ensuring there are no negative consequences for reporting unintentional mistakes, has had a huge impact on our reporting rates,” says Sims. “It has built trust and engagement with staff, and helped us get to the root causes of incidents much faster.” For Sims, it does remain important however to maintain a clear distinction between deliberate or premeditated actions versus a simple mistake. “A Just Culture doesn’t mean a ‘no blame’ culture. Reckless or rogue behaviour is not tolerated in our safety critical industry,” says Sims. That said, the proliferation of apps like FlightRadar24 and their increasing use in areas such as assessing aircraft noise have a probably unintended consequence of galvanising the views of service providers and unions alike towards alignment on the need for a common understanding of Just Culture, which he believes must be a real positive.

View From The Top: How Just Culture Must Become Stronger In a Social Media Age
So how useful can social media apps be in nurturing a Just Culture environment within air traffic control, asks Aimée Turner?
Ed Sims is chief executive at Airways New Zealand and passionately believes that Just Culture standards can only be effective once they are actively owned, led and role-modelled by the industry’s leadership.
As an industry leader himself he truly believes that tools such as the FlightRadar24 flight tracking app, rather than eroding Just Culture, in fact strengthen it.
“If anything the glare of publically available tools – and the need for judicious context around their use – makes the need for a robust and transparent Just Culture even more imperative,” he tells Air Traffic Management.
Should an event occur and an investigation ensue, any responsible air navigation service provider will reach no conclusion until all circumstances – current, historical and predictive – can be taken into account.
“Relatively subjective ‘evidence’ on apps or websites can be useful indicators but should never be the basis of further action in isolation,” says Sims. “Publically available weather apps cannot replace metdata in NOTAMS and the same applies to actual flight records.”
Sims, who spoke at the CANSO chief executive conference in Madrid in March, urged his industry peers to take proactive and visible ownership of Just Culture. For Sims, proactive incident reports are like gold to a company like Airways, enabling it to flush out, learn from, and eliminate potential problems before they do harm.
“Acknowledging the contribution of employees who make proactive reports, and ensuring there are no negative consequences for reporting unintentional mistakes, has had a huge impact on our reporting rates,” says Sims. “It has built trust and engagement with staff, and helped us get to the root causes of incidents much faster.”
For Sims, it does remain important however to maintain a clear distinction between deliberate or premeditated actions versus a simple mistake. “A Just Culture doesn’t mean a ‘no blame’ culture. Reckless or rogue behaviour is not tolerated in our safety critical industry,” says Sims.
That said, the proliferation of apps like FlightRadar24 and their increasing use in areas such as assessing aircraft noise have a probably unintended consequence of galvanising the views of service providers and unions alike towards alignment on the need for a common understanding of Just Culture, which he believes must be a real positive.

Bringing errors into the open allows their causes to be readily addressed; be they flaws in equipment, training, and/or staff decision-making. In contrast, summarily punishing staff without consideration encourages them to cover up mistakes, and makes it possible for the conditions that led to these mistakes to reoccur in the future – with potentially disastrous consequences.

“Just Culture means openly reporting and discussing safety issues and mistakes while accepting that individuals are held to account for our actions,” says Jeff Poole, director general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO). “It involves fostering an environment where staff feel secure that the organisation will treat them justly and fairly when they report potential safety concerns.”

In the United States, the FAA’s voluntary safety reporting programmes ‘enable front-line employees to confidentially submit safety information without fear of reprisal, as long as it is not intentional, grossly negligent or criminal in nature’, a FAA spokesperson tells Air Traffic Management. This Just Culture approach is working, he adds because ‘these programmes have significantly improved the quality and quantity of safety data the agency uses to make the world’s safest aviation system even safer’.

To date, air traffic controllers and managers have reported risks confidentially by filing more than 100,000 reports through the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), the world’s largest voluntary safety reporting programme. The FAA has identified and mitigated 406 safety risks, based on those reports and the workforce response has been overwhelming positive: nearly 90 per cent of eligible employees have registered for the programme.

In contrast, it has been repeatedly proven that “the ‘rotten apple’ strategy – removing the front line operator in the false belief that this will remedy a latent issue – does not improve systemic safety and discourages reporting,” says Philip Marien. He is editor of The Controller, the official journal of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association (IFATCA) and an incident investigator for Eurocontrol.

“An infamous case in the Netherlands from nearly two decades ago, the so-called Delta incident, shows this beyond any doubt,” says Marien. “When a team of controllers, including a trainee, were prosecuted for a runway incursion, reporting dropped dramatically. With that, the ability of the organisation to react proactively to potential safety events is greatly reduced as well.”

Why the Web Threatens Just Culture

In the Web’s 20-odd years of widespread usage, it has become very clear that the public is frequently poorly-informed, eager to make sweeping generalisations on the basis of the most simplistic conclusions. Among its ranks there also number those who seek out, harass and even harm people they see as perpetrators of crimes; whether these people are guilty or not.

It is this reality that worries IFATCA president Patrik Peters with respect to ATC/aviation tracking web sites. “Whereas one could argue that it increases transparency, it will be looked at by amateurs, who have not been trained in the profession,” he tells Air Traffic Management. “These people will misinterpret transmissions or video material and not understand the strategy and working methods of controllers. It is like looking at a surgeon performing his work without the explanatory text; it does not necessarily make much sense. The public first needs to be educated to understand the bigger picture.”

The public’s lack of knowledge also concerns CANSO’s Jeff Poole. “To members of the public who do not necessarily understand the procedures and rules governing air traffic control, this information can lead to inaccurate perceptions regarding the safety performance of air navigation services,” he said. “For example, there might be a loss of separation between aircraft when in fact there is no threat to safety.”

How the Web Could Help Just Culture

There are people in the air traffic control community who see increased public scrutiny as actually bolstering Just Culture, rather than harming it. One of them is Ewan Tasker; a former controller at NAV CANADA and now a regional senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

“I don’t see how the proliferation of publicly accessible flight tracking, whether audio or radar, could hamper incident reporting,” says Tasker. “In contrast, the knowledge that ‘the public’ might be watching may actually drive controllers to report things they otherwise would not.

“For example, if something goes wrong but the controller feels that it isn’t a big deal, or isn’t worth reporting, historically he might not have reported the event. If the controller were to consider the fact that ‘the public’ was watching, and someone else might therefore raise a concern, he may choose to report it, to safeguard himself against the repercussions for not reporting.”

Ewan Tasker adds that the risk of an ATC-reported incident drawing public attention of its own accord is unlikely. “If the event was so serious that ‘the public’ was interested, likely there would be numerous reports from the other concerned parties, and perhaps a TSB investigation,” he says.

If the controller is wary of the potential for negative public scrutiny, the information which will feature in Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS)can be de-identified. So while a filed incident report might cue members of the public to go to Flightradar24 and view the event for themselves, the information they receive does not disclose the identity of the controller.

“If indeed the radar or audio suggested some sort of error, ‘the public’ would have no idea who made the error,” explains Tasker.

“It is possible to imagine a few other unusual scenarios where ‘public knowledge’ might lead to an individual controller being hesitant to report something,” Ewan Tasker acknowledges. “However, I believe these scenarios are extremely uncommon, especially in comparison to the scenarios where the ‘public access’ has aided investigations, and advanced safety.”

Eric Eberhardt is creator of the YouAreListeningTo family of ATC/public safety radio transmission monitoring sites; covering a range of major US cities such as Los Angeles. He is quick to acknowledge that the media does tend to focus on villains and isolated negative incidents, and that it is possible that this has become easier with a more ‘connected’ public that is able to both track and share information via the Web and social media.

View From The Tower: How Controllers View The Impact of Social Media The emergence and broad development of new communication channels, especially social media channels, has led to an explosive demand for information. Air traffic management and air traffic control are complex professional environments -  not well known to the general public - where sensitive, dedicated information is handled everyday. As any other tool, social media channels are neither good or bad in themselves, but in the way they are used. They are a fantastic option to spread any message, addressed to a wide audience, in an easy and immediate way. Social media has become an essential factor for a successful communication strategy. They have enabled us to offer greater visibility about our profession and information broadcast through these channels has become key to ‘educating’ on the specificities of air traffic control: what it is and how it works. Operational and technical information used in the air transportation environment is not easily understood, however.  Passengers may go through eventful experiences: delays, holding patterns, missed approaches, medical or technical emergencies and all this information can be misinterpreted causing public alarm should the correct message fail to be broadcast.  These new communication and discussion forums have actually facilitated the participation of experts who are able to put specialised information in the right context for a lay audience. Sometimes, it is even possible to open a bi-directional communication channel with travellers, journalists, politicians and members of the aviation community. Accurate expert information can also be provided to develop and promote the use of best practice within the industry and to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining the highest standards in safety procedures, etc. But there are also some risks that cannot be overlooked. The design and standard use of many social media channels contributes to the indiscriminate flow of both reliable and unreliable information, with no other filter than the ability of the receiver to distinguish between them. Within the context of air transportation, especially in the event of an incident/accident, the uncontrolled and unfiltered broadcast of related messages, many of them based on speculative (and, probably incorrect analysis), may lead to misjudgements that will be rapidly spread worldwide. The huge number of communications on such occasions makes it almost impossible for expert interlocutors to ‘tackle’ the dissemination of wrong information. As much of the data used and produced by air traffic controllers is easily captured: meteorological data, voice communications, radar information, Aprocta recommends users of social media channels to handle all this information with especial care and to first ask the industry experts or professional associations about the reliability and advisability of any message before sharing it any further. Gonzalo Martínez Pato, aeronautical engineer and ATCO in Adolfo Suarez-Madrid Barajas airport & technical and safety department, APROCTA and Fernando Marián de Diego, PhD & ATCO in Canaries ACC & head of technical and safety department, APROCTA.

View From The Tower: How Frontline Staff View The Impact of Social Media
The emergence and broad development of new communication channels, especially social media channels, has led to an explosive demand for information.
Air traffic management and air traffic control are complex professional environments – not well known to the general public – where sensitive, dedicated information is handled everyday.
As any other tool, social media channels are neither good or bad in themselves, but in the way they are used. They are a fantastic option to spread any message, addressed to a wide audience, in an easy and immediate way.
Social media has become an essential factor for a successful communication strategy. They have enabled us to offer greater visibility about our profession and information broadcast through these channels has become key to ‘educating’ on the specificities of air traffic control: what it is and how it works.
Operational and technical information used in the air transportation environment is not easily understood, however.
Passengers may go through eventful experiences: delays, holding patterns, missed approaches, medical or technical emergencies and all this information can be misinterpreted causing public alarm should the correct message fail to be broadcast.
These new communication and discussion forums have actually facilitated the participation of experts who are able to put specialised information in the right context for a lay audience.
Sometimes, it is even possible to open a bi-directional communication channel with travellers, journalists, politicians and members of the aviation community. Accurate expert information can also be provided to develop and promote the use of best practice within the industry and to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining the highest standards in safety procedures, etc.
But there are also some risks that cannot be overlooked. The design and standard use of many social media channels contributes to the indiscriminate flow of both reliable and unreliable information, with no other filter than the ability of the receiver to distinguish between them.
Within the context of air transportation, especially in the event of an incident/accident, the uncontrolled and unfiltered broadcast of related messages, many of them based on speculative (and, probably incorrect analysis), may lead to misjudgements that will be rapidly spread worldwide.
The huge number of communications on such occasions makes it almost impossible for expert interlocutors to ‘tackle’ the dissemination of wrong information.
As much of the data used and produced by air traffic controllers is easily captured: meteorological data, voice communications, radar information, Aprocta recommends users of social media channels to handle all this information with especial care and to first ask the industry experts or professional associations about the reliability and advisability of any message before sharing it any further.
Gonzalo Martínez Pato, aeronautical engineer and ATCO in Adolfo Suarez-Madrid Barajas airport & technical and safety department, APROCTA and Fernando Marián de Diego, PhD & ATCO in Canaries ACC & head of technical and safety department, APROCTA.

“As we’ve seen, any time a passenger posts a photo related to some such incident, they are immediately contacted by hundreds of reporters on Twitter asking for photo usage rights,” he says.

At the same time, Eberhardt sees this scrutiny as having a backhandedly-positive impact on Just Culture. “The knowledge that they can be so easily tracked and reviewed may encourage more people to own up to their mistakes, since they know it would be futile to try covering it up,” he says.

“To look at it from another angle, I’m hoping one thing that my site can accomplish in terms of how the public perceives both air traffic controllers and police/fire departments, is to demonstrate the overwhelming number of things that don’t go wrong in the course of an average day, since this is something that will probably never be covered by the media.”

IFATCA’s Patrik Peters isn’t convinced. “We own our errors because we know that we will be judged and investigated by aviation safety professionals – and not by a member of the public having little or no knowledge about our profession,” he says. “Just Culture is a sensitive subject and requires trust. This could be impacted by the fear of being judged externally. It does not have to be, but it opens the door.”

In response to such external judgements, Peters fears that the rules governing air traffic control might become more rigid for their own sake; for instance, unnecessarily requiring increased separation standards at a time when modern technology is safely supporting a shift to lower, more efficient standards.

Adapting To A Fact of Life

No matter which side of this debate one is on, a simple fact stands clear. As CANSO’s Jeff Poole points out, real-time public access to and scrutiny of ATC communications and aircraft tracking radar has become ‘a fact of life’ – and so too is the need to adopt a Just Culture approach.

“Many people can now monitor air traffic operations, so a culture in which mistakes are openly reported, acknowledged and addressed is a must,” says Poole. “But public scrutiny alone is not a good reason to report; the reason for a Just Culture, and the non-punitive data reporting it fosters, is that it is the best way to identify and mitigate safety concerns before they become an incident.”

“In a mature Just Culture environment, public exposure will not adversely impact reporting,” he concludes. Hence the priority for the air traffic control industry in particular and aviation in general is to ensure that the prevailing Just Culture environment approaches maturity very, very quickly.

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