An air traffic controller stares in confusion at his screen, while his colleagues start shouting instructions at him and running over to watch the unfolding situation. Tension and stress levels are running high until eventually the missing plane is located, and the room quietens down. Just another day for an air traffic controller in what is called the most stressful job in the world? No, actually it is a scene from the 1999 film ‘Pushing Tin’ starring John Cusack, which is centered around the lives of two controllers.
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In reality, air traffic control is nothing like that, even during an emergency situation. They were right about one thing though; in a single shift, a controller will be responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers. I worked as an air traffic controller for around 20 years before moving into travel writing. In this article, I will talk about what it is really like to be an air traffic controller working in the UK.
Controllers train for many years to qualify for the job, and only around 1% of applicants make it through to qualify. Initially, a controller will spend approximately 12 months studying both the practical and theoretical sides of air traffic control at a specialist college. This can include subjects such as the weather, Air Navigation Law, as well as Air Traffic Control, which has many rules and regulations. Once they have successfully completed college training, they will be sent to an Air Traffic Control Unit. There are three types of controller: Aerodrome for those that work in a control tower, Approach for the radar vectoring of aircraft landing and departing at airports and Area Control. Many controllers do both Aerodrome and Approach except at larger airports such as London Heathrow.
Area Control is where controllers control higher-level traffic transiting between airports or overflying the country. I was an Area Controller. On leaving the college, an area controller would join an Area Control center and then do further practical training on a simulator for about 8-10 weeks. Finally, they are let loose on real planes and will be trained on live traffic with an on-the-job training instructor for up to 2 years.
Training is hard with vast amounts of rules to memorize alongside needing to display many qualities. Controllers need to be confident, calm, resilient, and think in three dimensions. As they speak to pilots, they are judging the aircraft’s trajectory through the air in terms of heading, level, and speed. It has been described by some as a giant video game or playing 3D chess, though I am not sure I ever felt that way at the time.
The first thing you would notice when you walk into an air traffic control room at an area center is how peaceful and calm it is. There is no shouting or standing up. Controllers are calmly and professionally going about their jobs, working as a team with their colleagues. If you visited the UK’s London Area Control center, you would also be awed by the size of the control rooms. This houses London Area Control, which manages en route traffic in the London Flight Information Region and includes en route airspace over England and Wales up to the Scottish border. The centre also houses the approach and terminal controllers for the London airports and the areas around them.
One question that always gets asked is, have you had any near misses? Well, that depends on what you call a near-miss. Controllers must maintain between three to five miles or 1,000 feet between aircraft. Many controllers have some form of loss of separation at some point in their career (which could be up to 40 years or longer in length), but this could mean 4.9 miles. Near-misses are incredibly rare.
Fortunately, air traffic control is incredibly safe and pretty high-tech now. Computer systems predict the aircraft’s trajectory and alert the controller if there is a conflict along its path. Controllers can even test out various scenarios before delivery of their instructions to the pilots. Aircraft are also fitted with collision avoidance computers, which issue automatic conflict resolution instructions if it gets too close to another plane. To avoid miscommunication between controllers and pilots, some instructions can be even be done via a data link straight to the cockpit instead of by voice.
So is it the world’s most stressful job? Well, it is undoubtedly one of the most responsible, but although there are times when it is highly stressful, a lot of the time it is very routine. At night it can be very quiet and rather dull when you have over 8 hours of very little to sit through and maintain alertness. Then just as you are at your most tired, the traffic starts to build up again!
One of the hardest things to cope with is the shifts. A controller needs to be able to be alert at all times, even at 3 a.m. in the morning. To ensure they can maintain concentration, rules govern how long they can work for. Usually they work no more than one and a half to two hours at a time before they must have a 30-minute break. Controllers work morning, afternoon and night shifts, generally on a six-day pattern followed by four days off. It also means sometimes missing birthdays, important family occasions and Christmas as ATC is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In high levels of traffic, bad weather, or emergencies, it can indeed be stressful, but controllers are highly trained to deal with these types of situations. Not only are they trained at the start of their career, but they are given continuous training to keep them current and prepared for infrequent scenarios.
ATC has been hit badly by the current travel crisis, and many air traffic service providers are suffering dire financial implications. In the UK, the Area Control or en-route side of the business currently has no income. This is due to Eurocontrol, the EU ATC body, allowing airlines to defer payments during the current situation. The airport side of the business is also likely to be affected long term as airports seek to cut costs.
This doesn’t look good for UK ATC as unlike most ATC companies, they are not state-owned. The UK government only owns 49% of the company plus a golden share. Whether they will be able to continue with so little income remains to be seen. Prospect, the air traffic controllers union, is calling on the government to nationalize the company to ensure it continues as a going concern. However, there is likely to be a number of redundancies of these highly skilled people if the situation does not improve. So what will happen when they are needed again when the traffic returns?
When you are lucky enough to be sitting safely on an aircraft again, perhaps you will spare a thought for those unsung heroes keeping our skies safe 365 days of the year.