Air traffic control training for millennials: Shifting the training paradigm


Recognizing the global skills shortage facing the aviation industry, New Zealand’s Airways has been on a journey to redefine our training model.

Though traditionally training and learning have been carried out with printed text books, in classrooms, or at a distance using the same resources, the way students want to learn has completely transformed. The generation of learners who pass through our training centres have grown up in an ‘on demand’ world where smart technologies are enabling them to be connected anytime, anywhere. It’s what they expect when it comes to learning and study – information at their fingertips, where they need it, when they need it, and how they need it.

Airways is responsible for managing all domestic and international air traffic operating within New Zealand’s 30 million square kilometre flight information region – one of the world’s largest areas of sovereign airspace.

We have been training our own air traffic controllers (ATCs) since we were founded; today we deliver training services to our international partners throughout the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. It is our global presence, along with millennial trainee demands, that has driven Airways’ next generation training strategies. Over the past five years we have been investing in e-learning and further investigating how gaming-based technologies can be incorporated in the learning experience.

Training challenges

Our e-learning journey began when we went to learners and other ANSPs to pinpoint what their expectations were for their learning and training outcomes.

Not only is there is a growing global shortage of ATCs, but the cost of training is significant. The industry spends around USD480 million on ATC training every year. The message from ANSPs was clear: they want high volume, low risk training options that deliver safe and work-ready graduates. The message from learners was that we needed to change how we do things; we needed to bring training into a paradigm that is familiar to them. They challenged us to review how we design and develop training.

An e-learning blueprint

Airways’ developed an e-learning blueprint based on four key principles:

  1. User engagement to enable learners to create a personalised learning environment.
  2. A global community where instructors and learners can collaborate to create a socially connected learning experience.
  3. Mobile and available anywhere to enable fast, flexible training at the learners’ pace and in their time.
  4. A digital eco-system on the cloud that can flex and grow with us.

We started with the Aviation Knowledge Online (AKO) learning experience platform. This was a critical innovation for Airways, opening the way for the Airbooks digital learning platform we released in 2015.

We believe Airbooks represents a paradigm shift in the world of e-learning. Airbooks are more than just words – they are interactive resources incorporating video, animations, audio, games and knowledge checks, designed to assist learners with theory based subjects. They bring theory to life.

Airbooks are designed to meet the needs of varying learner styles; the level of interaction learners experience with content within Airbooks helps to embed critical knowledge. Analytics are also available to allow trainers to see how their students are interacting with the material, as well as how well they are doing in knowledge check tests. This allows instructors to identify gaps in understanding and to focus their training sessions so that they can meet individual training needs.

We believe what’s fundamental to the success of Airbooks is that it is a learner developed resource. With outside support, we challenged a team of young Airways professionals to create a tool that they would want to use.

Our team of three millennials received coaching on development pedagogy and produced an initial chapter which was then peer reviewed and critiqued by international designers. The feedback received was used to guide revisions before beginning testing with user groups including students, instructors and operational controllers. Once our prototype was ready, it was independently reviewed before being released for worldwide user testing.

While the response from learners was overwhelmingly positive, testing revealed a level of apprehension amongst trainers in how they would integrate it in their existing methods.

Key to overcoming this was to not expect the technology to be adopted overnight. We followed an implementation plan that first allowed Airbooks to be incorporated as a supporting tool, and then into a blended learning model where trainers would be able to see the benefits for themselves.

We have since developed a range of Airbooks that cover the comprehensive ICAO 051 Air Traffic Services Licensing subjects for ab-initio learners.

Students have responded positively by having access to the Airbooks before a course starts. This allows them to preview the content and identify their own training needs before it begins. Discussions with instructors become more personalised since students have been able to identify their own training needs.

We believe there is potential for Airbooks to reduce classroom learning time.

Beyond abinitios

Airbooks are evolving. While they were designed with ab-initio learners in mind, we realised their potential has a wider reach. Airbooks are now being used throughout Airways for compliance and induction training to enable faster and more frequent training cycles than what would be possible with face-to-face delivery.

One of the biggest Airbooks success stories has been its use in ATC refresher training.

Airways is advancing with its Performance Based Navigation (PBN) roll-out programme and in 2016 was preparing to roll-out PBN to a further 25 per cent of New Zealand’s airspace. Achieving a roll-out of this scale meant delivering a training package to air traffic controllers in a number of locations around the country. We had to ask ourselves how we could deliver this effectively while managing disruption to rosters.

Airbooks PBN 101 provided the necessary background before staff undertook simulator sessions. Having a greater understanding of PBN theory meant ATCs were able to experience a number of complex scenarios in the simulator with a greater level of ease.

Overall, using Airbooks resulted in a 60 per cent time saving in the theory component of the course compared with face-to-face delivery, and all ATCs successfully completed the training required to go live with PBN in the operational environment within three months. This was a significant savings for Airways.

Next step gaming technologies?

Currently unsupervised simulation- and games-based learning is not widely used in the development and training of future air traffic controllers. However, recent studies on the use of simulation and games-based educational tools are gaining momentum and the growing interest in the practice is evidenced in a variety of recent research projects and initiatives. As part of our next generation strategy, we are currently undertaking research to try to understand just how much potential these technologies have for ATC training.

About the author

As the Manager of Training Delivery, Kelly de Lambert oversees the delivery of all Airways New Zealand’s training courses and programmes at its domestic and international campuses. Kelly has twenty five years’ experience in a variety of roles within the tertiary education and corporate sectors as a corporate trainer, lecturer, programme manager and academic quality manager.


Airways is an Associate Member of ICAO’s TRAINAIR PLUS Programme. TPP is open to all training organizations and operators, provided they are recognized or approved by their respective governments. The network consists of the following four categories of membership:

  • Associate Members: training organizations that successfully pass an on-site assessment;
  • Full  Members: TRAINAIR PLUS Members that develop Standardized Training Packages (STPs);
  • Regional Training Centres of Excellence (RTCEs): regional TRAINAIR PLUS-leading Full Members that can develop ICAO courses using ICAO provisions (Annexes and guidance material); and
  • Corporate  Members: aviation  institutions  and  industry  organizations that participate  in the  various  TRAINAIR PLUS Programme activities and have access to Members of the network.

To find out more information about the GAT programme and other ICAO training initiatives, contact the GAT office here.