Air traffic controllers make split-second decisions in a culture of “psychological safety” — Quartz

Earlier this month, what could have been the worst aviation accident in history was narrowly averted. An Air Canada pilot mistakenly lined up to land on a taxiway, instead of a parallel runway, at San Francisco International Airport. Four planes, fully fueled and loaded with passengers, were parked on the taxiway queued for take-off, facing the incoming aircraft.

In the heart-stopping audio recording of air traffic control conversations from that evening, an unidentified voice can be heard alerting the controllers to the plane’s location. “Where’s that guy going?” he asks. Then: “He’s on the taxiway.”

This visualization by the San Jose Mercury News shows just how close to disaster the incident came:

A controller who had previously reassured the Air Canada pilot that no planes were on its assigned runway calmly speaks again, this time telling the plane to “go around.” That’s aviation-speak for “abort the landing,” which the plane did, missing a collision, but only barely.

Exactly what went awry in the moments leading up to the incident is still under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But once it’s sorted out, it will almost certainly become a lesson in air traffic control training programs around the world, says Neil May, head of Human Factors at NATS, the public-private partnership company that provides air traffic control services for most UK airports. His trainers are constantly pulling insights and lesson plans from real world crises, not just from within the company’s own staff, but globally.

Air traffic controllers are vetted before they even start training, and selected for an above-average capacity to handle high-stakes pressure. Then they go through an intensive education, involving simulations, in which they’re taught to stay calm and decisive, have “clarity of thought,” and keep assimilating information rapidly.

But this innate talent and intense training would be less effective were it…

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