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Acquiring the Right Person

The appropriate recruitment, selection and training of Controllers is vital to the efficient and effective operation of the IOC. Yet, IOCs admit they have substantial difficulty finding and retaining the right resources. Appointees can be taught how to follow policies, operate systems, and be provided with training in leadership, communications and so forth. What is extremely difficult to do, though, is teach individuals how to be successful in disruption management. This is largely because of the innate qualities and traits needed for the role. So, finding the right person in the first place is essential.

Recruiting and Selecting Controllers

The pool of potential applicants is varied depending upon the airline’s approach. It really has a choice of external or internal sources.

Externally sourced

Should an IOC elect to source Controllers externally, the usual search would target existing Controllers serving other airlines, either domestically or internationally, or individuals working in associated roles and wishing to move into the IOC area. But the number of good, experienced Controllers worldwide (and wishing to relocate) is extremely limited. Very experienced, Senior Controllers and Dispatchers may be attracted to different conditions and remuneration, or the chance to expand their roles in a larger company or country. On the other hand, they may not be willing to leave their existing roles given personal circumstances. For this reason, sourcing this level of experience is increasingly difficult. Less senior Controllers, though, may be attracted. Notably, some of the pool may even fall outside industry. For example, a regionally based IOC had experienced great difficulty attracting suitably qualified candidates to their home town. To compensate, they found that recruiting candidates with a logistics industry (timber logging) background, albeit with little aviation knowledge, resulted in successful employment as the candidates could remain in the same region in which they had grown up rather than move to a city. The disadvantage of this approach was the nature of the foreign terminology, inexperience in communicating to a diverse group of stakeholders across the airline and adapting to the high- pressure environment of aviation life.

Ready sources of future personnel suitably qualified for IOC work are sometimes Pilots, Air Traffic Controllers or Flight Service Officers, who have elected to make a career change or whose careers may have been terminated due to medical conditions, for example. Their knowledge and expertise in their own areas is often invaluable for IOCs as they typically understand aviation rules, practices, procedures, terminology and factors affecting efficient operations. Most often, they have experienced the operational environment, its pressures and challenges, and are used to making rational decisions under pressure. Indeed they are methodical and risk averse. Therefore, they should have a mindset that supports the types of thought processes vital for an IOC environment, provided that they also possess the skills for ‘out of the box’ thinking as alluded to above. Other sources may include university students who have studied Aviation Management or similar degrees. With little or no exposure to the operational environment, their immediate value may lie more in supporting roles in the IOC, but nevertheless they may be identified at an early stage as promising for future roles, so a pathway leading eventually to IOC roles may be very attractive for the individual and a longer term viability for the airline. What students may bring also, are complementary skills such as analysis and research capability not generally found in IOCs, hence, as mentioned above, some instances of IOCs recruiting highly qualified (PhD) students, not for operational purposes but for sophisticated, exploratory systems and performance analysis.

Internally sourced

Should the IOC seek to employ internally, working through the airline’s People Management (HR or Personnel) Department will usually bring the advantage of some ready knowledge of the employee and his or her past and existing roles and performance. In addition, employee records will inform the recruitment process more fully, and help to narrow the field somewhat. The focus of this search will usually concentrate on those already having had exposure to the operational side of the business, such as airport-related, customer handling, or planning and resourcing roles. In particular, a pathway into the IOC may already be in train through prior recruitment into, say, the Crewing areas, which has exposed the candidate to disruptions - especially crew disruptions - and taken into account the vagaries of the Pilot or Flight Attendant employment agreements and other legal requirements. This frequently proven pathway delivers an excellent grounding for operations roles. Sometimes airlines have a graduate trainee scheme in place which facilitates experience gained across a number of airline departments. On occasions, these may include IOC roles, albeit in junior positions. While the matching process may not immediately address the IOC’s concern for the right person, the individual at least gains a worthwhile glimpse of the workings of the centre, even if only for three or six months.

Selection process

The process of selection is initiated typically by the People Management Department, who will narrow the field of candidates by culling the list and may conduct initial interviews themselves, with IOC management usually becoming involved once a short-list has been reached. Interviewing candidates facilitates a one-on-one opportunity to gauge a number of characteristics about an individual and establish basic information such as background, knowledge in the field, and prior experience. This can be enhanced by the inclusion of behaviour oriented questions that draw on past performance as a tool for forecasting future conduct. In addition, mock problems may be offered to elicit the candidate’s thought processes and ability to articulate a reasoned and logical response, and may be far more beneficial than a rudimentary interview to explore the skill-set. The use of a simulation tool (mirroring elements of the actual system in use in the IOC) that provides a range of generated operational situations is a further means of delving more deeply into these thought processes. Coupled with a credible method for measuring performance against set benchmarks, this advanced tool can help to determine the way in which problems may be viewed and likely patterns of response - that is, identifying what may seem to come naturally, which is so hard to detect during a normal interview process. This sort of tool enables manipulation of weighted criteria case by case, so that highly desirable attributes can be explored with added rigour.

References and referees’ checks

Reference checks that rely on written testimonials are rarely of much benefit as they are always written in a most positive light and fail to portray a true insight into an individual. By far, a preferred method is to select from a referee list and use a well-defined, explorative set of questions that encourages the referee to respond appropriately. Behavioural questions that seek to link past conduct with future performance are likely to yield reasonable results, provided that the questions are suitably modified to suit candidates’ specific backgrounds, rather than a generic set, many of which can be irrelevant for the purpose. For example, asking a referee to describe ‘Johnny’s’ personality is of very limited value. But, relevant to someone’s life skills (something that they could realistically have experienced) and pertinent to an IOC are more directed questions such as, ‘When did you last see “Johnny” tackle a challenging problem? What did he actually do? How did he approach the problem? In what ways did he show initiative? How creative was he? How persistent was he in following it through to a conclusion?’

Training Controllers

Training Controllers in an IOC takes many forms and may depend upon the Controllers’ previous roles and levels of experience. Some, of course, will come to the airline with many years’ involvement in operations and perhaps with some management experience, while others may be relatively inexperienced. Notwithstanding this, most training agendas commence with some form of induction training, which provides for a company overview, its structure, culture and norms, and company policies, and a more detailed operational rundown including structure and reporting lines, fleet characteristics, port information, airline practices and procedures, meteorology, operational systems, and so forth. However, for the Controller, the main thrust of training stems from learning on the job.

On the job

Often IOCs do not exhibit formalised training programs. Beyond the induction training, Controllers are typically introduced to the finer elements of the job, learning about normal and irregular operations, the factors that underpin each, and the subsequent management of them. A ‘classroom’ approach may be part of the initial training phase covering these and a lot of other information in considerable detail, perhaps over several weeks. But the transition of knowledge really comes to fruition in the practical, hands-on approach where the trainee is matched with an existing Controller, effectively mirroring their roster for a period. This ‘buddy’ method of training is arguably the most frequently used method in IOCs, enabling the Controller to learn from a mentor for several weeks. Provided the experienced Controller is an adept trainer (i.e. is motivated to impart knowledge and, importantly, specific techniques required for the task), and that the relationship between trainer and trainee is conducive, then some transfer of knowledge is likely, especially if the senior individual can elaborate sound cognitive processes. But there can also be disadvantages of buddy training. The method usually relies on learning the trade from one individual only, conveying that person’s attitudes and habits (good and bad) to the trainee. This clearly relies on the interest and commitment of the mentor (i.e., a passionate and engaging approach versus one instructed to watch over and guide). A rotational method whereby the trainee accompanies several experienced Controllers over respective terms negates some of these concerns. Gradually the tasks are performed by the trainee with the mentoring Controller(s) guiding or observing only, as time ensues. Once ‘signed off’ the trainee is ready for a more permanent (but still junior) role. There is then a period of probation, during which time, both the airline and the individual need to assess the worth of the relationship. After all, a match only occurs when both parties establish a successful fit. Determining the value of a Controller is a process that usually takes at least 12 months and is also contingent on the level of exposure to a wide variety of complex situations and hence the degree of problem solving and decision making exercised.


Whereas initial training is vital to ensure trainees acquire sufficient knowledge and instruction to establish the fundamental tasks, recurrent training (e.g., annual, biennial) is often overlooked. Yet, recurrent training may be extremely beneficial, especially in airlines that are growing or changing considerably, or whose systems are becoming far more technologically capable. The focus of this sort of advanced training may lie in advanced problem solving or decision making or softer skill-based training in people management, negotiation, or leadership. More formalised courses will certainly provide considerable depth of information and in the case of regulatory body approved Airline Dispatch courses, offer a licence (where applicable) should this not already be an airline requirement.

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