ATSAP Employee Participation Rate Soars
Thursday, June 28, 2012

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles jointly produced by FAA ATO Communications and NATCA, highlighting the successes of the ATSAP program.

More than 60 percent of the 21,462 Air Traffic Organization (ATO) employees who are eligible to participate in the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) have submitted at least one ATSAP report, marking a giant step forward for safety.

Thanks to the front line employees using ATSAP, the ATO now has more and better safety data. The level of participation shows controllers see the program as a way to improve safety in the national airspace system (NAS).

In all, employees have filed more than 48,000 ATSAP reports since the program was initiated four years ago.

The ATO is analyzing and acting on the data, much of which might have remained unknown and uncollected if not for ATSAP, to take risk out of the system.

ATSAP is a key component of the ATO’s shift to a safety culture, in which the organization aims to use data, including information from front line employees, to resolve safety issues before they lead to accidents.

“We already have an amazingly safe system — 99.998 percent of our operations occur completely according to procedures. Now we are working on precursors of precursors, and we need the advanced knowledge that is found at the source,” said Joseph Teixeira, FAA ATO Vice President of Safety and Technical Training. “Simply put, we trust our front line employees to be our greatest resource to eliminate risk in the airspace. Their efforts are vital to our success.”

In its development of a safety culture, the ATO is creating an environment where employees can report safety events without fear of punishment, he said.

ATSAP reports have led to the resolution of a range of issues, including advising pilots when runways are shortened by construction and removing trees to improve coverage of an Airport Surveillance Radar. Controller reports have also resolved issues such as condensation between tower cab windowpanes and contradictions in computer-based instruction.

When controllers see that ATSAP is effective in resolving long-standing issues, they become strong advocates for the program, said Lisa Cyr, a controller at Albuquerque Center and NATCA’s national lead for the FAA’s recurrent training program.

As part of implementing the recurrent training program, which draws teaching material from ATSAP reports, Cyr traveled to nearly a dozen air traffic facilities and talked to 300 controllers and managers.

She heard story after story about how ATSAP’s effectiveness won over skeptical front line employees.

At Albuquerque Center, controllers who were initially doubtful about ATSAP saw that it resolved some minor safety issues and began to file regular reports on a major problem involving frequency issues in two of the area’s sectors. The frequencies are now being fixed.

At Miami Center, Steve Wallace, the facility’s NATCA representative, says ATSAP’s effectiveness in resolving issues is integral to showing controllers the value of the program and getting them involved in improving safety.

“Once you establish that you're going to take action and you involve people, the way you get buy-in is by giving them a product that addresses a problem at hand and is effective at resolving the issue,” he said.

ATSAP has another benefit to safety: it encourages reflection, and that leads to learning, according to Beth Mack, manager of Safety Programs.

“The sheer act of explaining what you did and why you did it is the fundamental tenet of voluntary safety reporting,” Mack said. “That's how you learn – thinking through what went wrong and why."

And the learning often extends beyond the individual who files the report.

The reports, stripped of details that might reveal the reporter’s identity, are distributed in ATSAP briefing sheets, sent out every other week. Nysei Moses, a front line manager at Norfolk Tower and TRACON, says she often sees them in the facility’s break room, left behind by controllers who have read them.

“The sheets make the controller know that the things he or she is doing at the point of decision aren’t isolated,” Moses said. “Other controllers are experiencing the same kinds of breakdowns, and we need to get to the point that we're not setting ourselves up for it to happen again.

“The information is helping controllers watch for those things, and correct those things early, rather than waiting for something to happen and filing an ATSAP report afterward,” she said.

Moses has been able to use the information from the briefing sheets to help guide new controllers through training and prepare them to handle air traffic on their own.

“Controllers hear the language and terminology used by other controllers and it resonates with them much more than anything an outsider could tell them,” Mack said.

ATSAP has proven so successful in gathering data, encouraging learning and resolving safety issues that Technical Operations has launched a similar program for its workforce.

The Technical Operations Safety Action Program, or T-SAP, is currently in its demonstration phase in the Central Service Area. The ATO is applying to extend the demonstration phase for one year, after which it will be expanded to the other two service areas.

“We have been so impressed with the information we receive from our front line people,” Teixeira said. “They deserve the credit for our system being the safest and most efficient in the world — and they have great ideas on how to improve it.”