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Problem-Solving Skills

As could be expected, the main role in the IOC is problem solving. This is generally a reactive response to a situation. But part of the problemsolving process is having an unending awareness of what is happening across the network or particular section under watch.

Network monitoring

The need to monitor the flight schedules seems obvious, but other than gaining an initial awareness built from a shift handover or similar briefing, ongoing oversight is the principal means for maintaining full awareness of the operations. This is partly the reason that experienced Controllers exhibit a mastery of staying on top of events. Without disruption, monitoring is a case of observing departures and arrivals as they become updated. But, it is also a case of projecting well ahead of time to calculate implications of changing weather, for example, or other influences that may become disruptive. Mostly, though, disruptions in some form are common and frequent, so monitoring becomes more intense in determining potential sources of conflict and disharmony, requiring much of the Controllers’ attention. This environment requires a continuous risk-management process. Assessing the validity of threats or potential disruptions is a matter of constant awareness and attention. For example, a relatively simple weather situation (e.g., strong cross- winds at a single-runway airport) immediately starts a chain reaction and in the Controller’s mind, questions are raised such as - should the flight continue under present circumstances knowing that a diversion to an alternate destination is quite possible if the weather persists, or should a diversion be exercised now? If the flight were to divert, what is the consequence for the next (return or perhaps onward) flight, and are crew hours at risk? How can the passengers be accommodated (i.e., rescued) from a diversion port? So, the monitoring role is never really dormant. These sorts of mind games are at the forefront of the operation, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant an issue.

Problem identification and analysis

The occurrence of a disruption may be identified as a result of information received from a recognised source, or alternatively an absence of information from an otherwise reliable source. Then it is a matter for Controllers to identify the characteristics of the problem, determining its nature and potential threat to the schedules. Subject to the type of problem, ensuring that information is shared with associated IOC functions is important for a common understanding. For example, what may appear to be a straightforward, isolated delay to one flight in the eyes of a Controller may not create any disturbance for the aircraft pattern, but may well have significant consequences for the Crewing Department. So team coherence that shares and acts on common information is needed to correctly identify and explore all facets of potential and actual problems. This is fundamental to the integrity of the IOC structure. Once a problem is evident, an analysis stage involves a full determination of the extent of the problem. At this point, the Controller needs to validate the information received, in particular ensuring its source is credible and challenging any dubious message. Problem analysis will invite participation from other members of the IOC, so receptiveness to others’ views and suggestions is vital to ensure analysis is as thorough as possible. The skills of the experienced Controller are evident in this stage, in terms of realising real and potential opportunities and identifying actions needed.

In other words, the analysis of a problem is more than simply contemplating what might happen in an event. The additional steps of generating and assessing options, each with its own projected outcomes and consequences, are also important and this is where the highly creative and intuitive minds lead to more advanced solutions.

Problem decision point and implementation

Key to the decision process is identifying points at which decisions need to be made. Too soon, and information may be incomplete, or other IOC functions may not have had sufficient input. Too late, and options may have vanished. It is a balancing act and is determined by a combination of factors underpinning the problem, the time available for optimising the solution and, crucially, the experience and expertise of the Controller. Notwithstanding the two decision-making styles outlined above, the Controller still has to ensure that sufficient information has been received and any likely change taken into account. Then, having consulted appropriately, and weighed all the options, the decision is enacted and outcome disseminated to all stakeholders, including customers. At times, the Controller needs conviction in his/her decision and the will to invoke the necessary choice as, with most decisions, there will be winners and losers. In a complex disruption, choosing the best option may be to the overall benefit of the airline but, in effect, compromises are often made resulting in penalising some aspects of the schedule.

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