Cognition, Technology & Work

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 205–217 | Cite as

The influence of task load on situation awareness and control strategy in the ATC tower environment

  • Maik Friedrich
  • Maresa Biermann
  • Patrick Gontar
  • Marcus Biella
  • Klaus Bengler
Original Article


The safe and efficient operation of air traffic is highly dependent on the performance of the Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO). The ATCOs control the traffic within defined areas by monitoring the traffic and granting clearances. A key element in analyzing the ATCOs is their interaction with the environment through their workplace. Especially the influence of task load on their situation awareness (SA) and applied control strategy provides information on the quality of the workplace. As task load increases, controllers are able to maintain performance by using different management or compensation strategies. This article supports the evaluation of ATCO’s workplaces by focusing on whether probe techniques for assessing SA are applicable for tower control operation and for measuring the influences of increased task load on the control strategy. An experiment with nine ATCOs was conducted in a simulated real-time air traffic control environment. Different measurements for SA were applied and compared regarding their efficiency and validity. The manipulation of task load and visibility influenced the SA and control strategy at the same time. Performance metrics were selected in advance to evaluate the participant’s efficiency. SA was measured with a probe technique and an offline self-assessment method. Findings suggest that probe techniques increase the insight into the understanding of SA in comparison to self-assessment and that they are applicable to the air traffic control environment. Control strategies were derived from the information-gathering process via the eye-movement behavior and connected to task load. The results imply that SA is part of the individual performance and that increasing demand through task load is handled with an adaptation of the control strategy.


Task load Situation awareness Strategy identification Eye tracking Air traffic control 



This research received funding from the German Aerospace Center institutional funding mechanism dedicated to the human center approach for automation, which is sponsored by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.German Aerospace CenterBrunswickGermany
  2. 2.Technical University of MunichMunichGermany

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