A confused air traffic controller stares at his screen while his colleagues shout instructions and run over to observe the unfolding situation. The tension and stress levels rise until the plane is found. It’s just another day in the life of an air traffic controller, which is known as the most stressful job on the planet. It is actually a scene from the 1999 movie Pushing Tin starring John Cusack. The film centers around two controllers.
Air traffic control, even in an emergency, is not like that. One thing they were correct about was that a controller can be responsible for thousands of passengers’ safety in one shift. Before moving into travel writing, I was an air traffic controller for about 20 years. This article will discuss what it’s like to work as an air traffic controller in the U.K.
To qualify for the job of controller, applicants must train for years. Only 1% of those who apply are successful. A controller will initially spend 12 months learning both the theoretical and practical aspects of air traffic control at a college. These subjects can include the weather, Air Navigation Law and Air Traffic Control which have many rules. After they have completed their college training, they are sent to the Air Traffic Control Unit. There are three types: Aerodrome, Approach, and Area Control. These controllers work in control towers, and can be used to vector aircraft at airports. Many controllers perform both Approach and Aerodrome except for larger airports like London Heathrow.
Area Control is the place where controllers manage higher-level traffic that transits between airports and overflying countries. I was an Area Controller. After graduating from college, the area controller would go to an Area Control Center and continue their practical training in a simulator for approximately 8-10 weeks. Finally, they will take to the skies in real planes with an instructor who can train them on the job for up 2 years.
It is difficult to train with so many rules and the need to demonstrate many qualities. Controllers must be calm, confident, and resilient. They also need to think in three dimensions. They are looking at the aircraft’s trajectory in the air and judging its heading, speed, and level as they talk to pilots. Some have described it as playing 3D chess or a giant videogame. I don’t think I ever felt this way.
When you enter an area center’s air traffic control room, the first thing you will notice is its peace and tranquility. There is no shouting and there is no standing up. The controllers work together as a team, going about their tasks calmly and professionally. The control rooms at the U.K.’s London Area Control Center would be overwhelming if you were to visit. It houses London Area Control ,which manages traffic in the London Flight Information Region. This includes airspace over England and Wales to the Scottish border. This centre houses the approach and terminal controllers of the London airports as well as the surrounding areas.
A common question is “Have you ever had any near misses?” It depends on what you consider a near miss. Controllers need to maintain a distance of three to five miles (or 1,000 feet) between aircraft. Most controllers experience some type of separation at one point in their careers. This could be for up to 40 years, or even longer. However, it could only mean 4.9 miles. It is rare to have a near-miss.
Air traffic control is extremely safe and highly technified. Computer systems can predict the trajectory of an aircraft and notify the controller if it encounters a problem. The controllers can test different scenarios before delivering their instructions to pilots. Automatic conflict resolution instructions are issued to pilots if an aircraft is too close to another plane by collision avoidance computers. Some instructions can even be sent via data link directly to the cockpit, in order to avoid miscommunication between pilots and controllers.
Is it really the most stressful job in the world? It is certainly one of the most important jobs, but it is also very routine. It can feel very dull and quiet at night if you don’t have much to do and only 8 hours to go. Just as you feel exhausted, traffic builds up again.
Shifts are one of the most difficult things to manage. The shifts are the most difficult thing to manage. They are limited in the time they can work to maintain their concentration. They are usually limited to working for one and a quarter to two hours before taking a 30-minute break. Controllers work morning, evening, and night shifts. They generally follow a six-day pattern with four days off. This can lead to missing important family events and birthdays.
It can be stressful to work in high traffic areas, bad weather or emergency situations. However, controllers are well-trained to handle these kinds of situations. They are not only trained from the beginning of their careers, but are also given ongoing training to ensure they are ready for any unexpected situations.
ATC has been badly affected by the current travel crisis and many air traffic service providers have severe financial consequences. The U.K.’s Area Control, or the en-route part of the business, has no income at the moment. Eurocontrol, an EU ATC body that allows airlines to defer payment during current circumstances, is responsible for this. Long-term, the airport business will likely be affected as airports try to reduce costs.
U.K. ATC is not in a good position, as they are not owned by the state. Only 49% plus a golden stake are owned by the U.K. government. It remains to be seen if they can continue to make enough income. Prospect, the union of air traffic controllers, has called on the government for nationalization of the company in order to ensure that it remains a viable business. If the situation doesn’t improve, however, it is likely that these highly-skilled people will be laid off. What will happen if they are required again, when traffic returns to normal?
If you’re lucky enough to fly again, please spare a thought of those unsung heroes who keep our skies safe all year.