ATC Operational Errors: Exceeding the Limits of Cognitive Capacities

Document Type


Publication Date





Operational errors (OEs) in air traffic control are made by novice controllers and those with vast experience. Since air traffic control requires a high level of cognitive processing, this study was intended to elucidate the association of OEs and the capacity limits of cognitive processing in the brain. For this purpose we developed a memory-attention model and used the model to analyze 93 runway incursion OEs related to controller-controller communications. The analysis showed that roughly 60% of the OEs might have been associated with exceeding the capacity limits of attention and memory. We identified seven types of capacity limits as potential factors contributing to the OEs: 1) inattention; 2) attentional blink; 3) memory overload; 4) disruption of memory consolidation; 5) habit interference; 6) goal interference; and 7) similarity interference. The results suggest that controllers might be able to prevent certain types of OEs simply by being aware of those limitations. The model is preliminary and needs to be validated before being applied to a broader range of OE analysis.