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No blame culture – lessons from air traffic control

Peter Meurer, Air Traffic Controller
Peter started his careeer in the German Air Forces and handled air traffic in Frankfurt, one of the busiest airports in the world.

Note from Elias: Learning from mistakes is critical. Especially in tech. But how do you motivate people whose reputation may depend on not screwing up? My friend Peter literally deals with life and death decisions – and he’s telling me how they prepare for these situations in the tower and how to learn from mistakes without blame to improve their system and processes against errors in the future.

Who is Peter Meurer?

I was born in Poland, but grew up and received my education in Germany. My journey began in the German Air Force, where I gained valuable experience and honed my skills. Throughout my career, I have obtained licenses from different airports such as Karlsruhe Baden and Frankfurt Hahn Airport. Most recently, I have been fortunate enough to participate in on job training at the renowned Frankfurt International Airport.

In addition to my professional accomplishments, I am proud to be a loving husband and father to two wonderful children. They bring immense joy and fulfillment to my life and constantly remind me of the importance of family.

How do you become an Air Traffic Controller?

I was enlisted into basic military service in 2006. After completing basic training, I had the opportunity to join the aeronautical information service. My role involved advising and assisting pilots with flight planning and submitting their routes. It was during this time that I had the chance to interact with air traffic controllers stationed at our base. From that point on, I knew that becoming an air traffic controller was my calling. After successfully navigating through a rigorous selection process, I passed all the required tests and became qualified to embark on my career as an air traffic controller. Throughout my training, I specialized in tower operations.

You need to keep a hundred things in mind and then make split second decisions – 

How do you do that?

It’s a complex process you’re going through, which requires a combination of trained skills and the right mindset. It’s important to have a solid understanding of the basics and your environment, as well as being well-versed in regulations. Staying calm and focused is crucial, as it allows you to set correct priorities and know your limits. When you have consolidated and internalized your knowledge, you won’t have to constantly think about it – it will become automatic. This frees up mental resources for the present situation and preplanning. In situations where you’re bombarded with numerous tasks or information, it’s essential to create space for further actions. Achieving this requires careful consideration of multiple factors in advance.

What happens if something goes wrong? How do you handle errors?

In the event that something goes wrong, it is crucial to remain calm and respond proactively in order to defuse the situation, regardless of who made the mistake. The worst course of action is to do nothing and hope that the situation resolves itself. Special training is provided for handling technical problems and emergencies, with the availability of special emergency checklists and effective teamwork playing a key role in resolving such situations. However, there are also instances where human error occurs. It is important to recognize that errors are inevitable and can happen at any time and in any place. Nevertheless, we should not simply accept this as a fact. Appropriate measures should be taken to minimize the occurrence of such errors. This is why the Human Factor is an integral part of safety management. The objective is to identify and mitigate potential sources of error in advance. Furthermore, implementing a just culture enhances safety. A “no blame culture” closely aligns with the concept of just culture, which means that after an incident, all those affected must be willing to openly discuss and conduct a transparent analysis of the errors involved. Employees should not be penalized for their actions or decisions; however, individuals responsible for grossly negligent actions or intentional misconduct must still be held accountable. By learning from others’ mistakes and identifying minor errors that could have significant impacts, we can make improvements.

Is it possible to apply skills from air traffic control in other professional fields or companies?

Working under pressure can be a valuable skill that can contribute to success in any role. Mastering basics, preplanning and the creation of space when feeling overwhelmed influence your decisions and the quality thereof. By combining these elements effectively, you can optimize your decision-making process and achieve the best possible outcome. To minimize stress and stay cool in specific situations, corroborate the knowledge of all these factors. There are a lot of key categories everybody could be analyzing like environment, setting priorities or resolving problems. It’s crucial to assess whether you have control over the situation, identify any confounding factors and also be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

Having the right tools and resources to achieve focus and time management under pressure is essential in any role.

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