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Canada flies on top air safety record

By Paula Newton, CNN
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Canada's air controllers get rest time
  • Canada's privately-owned air traffic control is an industry leader
  • Controllers urged to discuss stresses, nap if necessary, avoid blame culture
  • In U.S. controversy rages after controllers were caught sleeping on the job
  • Canada was judged the world's best Air Navigation Service Provider in 2010

Toronto, Canada (CNN) -- It's a witty irony that Kurtis Arnold's claim rings true for him on most days; the most stressful part of his job as an air traffic controller is his commute in by car.

As the scrutiny over air control safety continues, Arnold admits it can be a stressful job but that Nav Canada, his employer and Canada's only air traffic control provider, has put the training and tools in place to manage that stress both on duty and off.

"I think the air traffic controllers are like the wizard who's behind the curtain," says Arnold while perched in a tower high above Toronto's Pearson Airport on a hectic day with fog finally rolling out and severe thunderstorms rolling in.

"At our busiest peak periods we'll have a takeoff or landing at this airport about every 25 seconds. So what's it like to work that? Well there's a lot going on. You really train yourself to internalize the procedures so you're really making decision sub-consciously because you're communicating constantly." says Arnold.

As Arnold hits the screens for a typical day of work, the atmosphere both in the control tower at Toronto's airport and the Area Control Center next door, is professional yet genial.

The future of U.S. air traffic safety

Controllers are encouraged to talk about their best practices as well as their stress without engaging in what they call a "blame culture."

U.S. air traffic control training
Simple models used in U.S. FAA training

What looks like a maze of computers and monitors are Arnold's tools of the trade and increasingly he and his colleagues rely on electronic data for flight information and updates.

At certain intervals in these control centers you can hear the pace of the chatter quicken and short, sharp bursts of communications rattle through headsets. But quickly, critical moments pass without incident, as flights are shepherded through unpredictable weather and turbulence.

Through it all, the center maintains its air of calm, something they know the traveling public is relying on.

"They need to have faith in what we do and I guess that we're so successful at it that when something comes unraveled for a few minutes, it's so noteworthy because it doesn't happen very often" says Arnold.

Nav Canada controllers are meticulously trained, they never work alone, they work no more than about 17 days in every 28 and they must have at least 10 hours off between shifts.

For more than a decade Nav Canada has researched and implemented strategies to mitigate the effects of fatigue and that includes sanctioning a nap if needed.

"We actually have a lounge where Nav Canada provides us with reclining chairs so we'll use them for naps and if you go over there in the morning you'll often see a controller who's had a long commute and they'll slide away on their breaks and take a 10 or 15 minute nap to re-energize," explains Arnold.

Can technology fix FAA's air traffic troubles?

But napping is not the only thing that sets Nav Canada apart.

Canadian controllers are trained and managed by one of the most successful and safe air traffic control systems in the world. Last year they won the IATA Eagle Award winner means they were judged the world's best Air Navigation Service Provider

What is perhaps surprising is that unlike in many countries, including the United States where there has been controversy over controllers caught sleeping on the job, it is not government owned or operated.

"We can demonstrably show that our system is safer today than it was when it was in government," says John Crichton, Nav Canada's current and founding CEO.

Crichton says in 1996 the Canadian air traffic control system was in crisis; chronically mismanaged, the system was soaking up government money, using out of date equipment and there was very low morale among its controllers.

"The employees in the system were not happy, they were subject to wage freezes, they were concerned about the technology and the tools they had," says Crichton.

He explains how he set out to change that with a revolutionary model that would see him take air traffic control out of government hands and transformed into a thriving business with a bottom line.

"Flights are shorter, people get more direct routing, there is very little delay in our system attributable to the air traffic control system, very little, almost negligible," says Crichton.

Nav Canada has won industry awards for both safety and efficiency and it now sells its expertise and technology around the world.

The one thing Nav Canada does not do is return a profit to its members or stakeholders, any profits or efficiencies are plowed back into the business.

"The profits come in safety, greenhouse gas emissions or our own cost improvements," says Rudy Kellar, Nav Canada's Head of Operations.

Nav Canada claims to have saved more than a $1.5 billion dollars for its airline clients over the years as well as maintaining a stellar safety record.

"Equally as important, or perhaps more important, are the savings we provide to the airlines by giving them more direct routes, more efficient flight profiles and that now is running into the billions in terms of reduced fuel burn. Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions that are reduced," says Crichton.

Crichton is blunt about the consequences if any facet of his business should let down the traveling public.

"Conceptually at least our only product is safety. We cannot afford to ever let a public perception arise that we anything but as diligent as possible about safety because it would be bad for business," says Crichton.

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It's no surprise that a half-dozen air traffic control specialists were recently caught sleeping on the job.
Behind the air traffic control problems
Air traffic controller fatigue has been attributed as a factor over the years in a number of accidents, including near misses and runway collisions.
New rules for air traffic controllers
Air traffic controllers are facing a slew of new rules aimed at preventing them from falling asleep while on duty.
Inside an air traffic controller's life
Former air traffic controllers say sleeping on the job is nothing new. Their schedules may shock you.
Controllers going back in the skies
A program that puts air traffic controllers in the cockpit to become familiar with pilots' workloads and responsibilities is being resurrected.
Sleep a 'privilege' for night workers
Night shift workers say they struggle to stay awake no matter how many years they've done it.