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Mental Workload in Air Traffic Control: An Index Constructed from Field Tests

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Averty P, Collet C, Dittmar A, Athènes S, Vernet-Maury E. Mental workload in air traffic control: an index constructed from field tests. Aviat Space Environ Med 2004; 75:333–41.

Background: Mental workload assessment is a recurrent issue in air traffic control (ATC). Studies of ATC have used either objective aspects, i.e., numbers and distribution of aircraft, or subjective factors, such as self-imposed performance and stress levels, with mixed results. This is partly due to the difficulty in bringing together comparable data pertaining to both air traffic, with its ever-changing distribution, and judgement or quickly fluctuating psychophysiological variables. Methods: We propose a method of mental load estimation devised to take into account both objective traffic variables and the additional load imposed by subjective effects, including the seriousness of conflicts and the time-pressure for their resolution. First, we developed a traffic load index (TLI) to identify time boundaries during which additional load may occur. Then we quantified the additional load according to the air traffic situation. Results: TLI was developed from analysis of 25 h of recordings of radar control sessions involving 25 professional air traffic controllers at a major airport. Results were then compared with a simple objective index (number of aircraft) and subjective workload ratings (NASA-TLX test). The whole population (intersubjects analysis) showed a better correlation between the TLI and the self-rated workload than for the number of aircraft alone. Among the controllers who rated more than one level of workload through the TLX-test, 77.8% showed better correlation between TLI and TLX than between N and TLX (intrasubjects analysis). Conclusion: Workload estimation should integrate both objective task variables and subjective evaluations associated with them.
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Keywords: air traffic control; workload measurement

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-04-01

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