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Controlling the air traffic

An air traffic controller has to see to the safe landing, ground movement and take-off of an aircraft… very high-pressure but dynamic work, says Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Jun 20, 2012 17:40 IST
Rahat Bano
Rahat Bano
Hindustan Times

Even before you board a plane at the airport and disembark at your destination, there’s a band of dedicated professionals which makes the flying machines move around safely — on the ground as well as in air. The safety of hundreds of lives, costly cargo and fleet is the responsibility of air traffic control officers (ATCOs) at any given time.

With a growing civil aviation sector, India needs more than the current 1,650 controllers to service new and expanding airports.

“They propose to recruit 200 ATCOs per year,” informs DK Behera, general secretary, Air Traffic Controllers’ Guild (India) and joint GM (ATC), Airports Authority of India (headquarters), Delhi, referring to AAI, which trains and recruits ATCOs in the country. Recently, AAI held an exam to fill up 328 openings.

The ATCOs keep an eye on the aircraft from ATC towers and once it’s out of (human) sight, through radar. An ATC complement comprises five units to help an aircraft fly.

These are
1. Clearance delivery unit (CDU): The aircraft calls this unit to provide all details, such as which route it is going to take, fuel requirement, number of passengers on board and so on. CDU will coordinate with area control unit, which conveys the go-head for clearance or alternative option for the aircraft, depending on the availability of the flight level (altitude).

2. Surface movement control (SMC): This unit issues start-up or push-back clearance for ground movement of aircraft. It is responsible for the plane’s movement and surveillance up to the ‘holding point’, the well-lit, well-marked portion close to the runway.

3. Aerodrome or tower controller: He gives the green signal for departure and landing of flights.

4. Approach control (or radar control): It guides the aircraft up to 60 miles from the airport, after which it hands it over to area control.

5. Area control unit: Area control has to give allocated altitude to the aircraft and take it to the designated route and finally hand it over to the neighbouring area control centre (in another city). It has to ensure standard separation between the aircraft.

During peak hours at midnight at Delhi’s international airport, the busiest in India, a controller might handle 200-300 planes overflying the Capital’s airspace.

Says Piyush Srivastava, assistant manager (ATC), Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi, “At night, the bulk of the aircraft are overflying Indian airspace (on their journey between two different countries) because of the restriction on night in other parts of the world and due to their faith in the services Indian ATC provides.”

This faith reposed in these professionals keeps “everybody on their toes,” says Srivastava.

Adds Behera, “Even after landing, unless the aircraft has slowed down, there’s apprehension in the minds of the ATCO in charge — anything can happen even after landing.”

High-pressure situations are common among the controllers, who need to wear headphones, concentrate hard on what the pilot is communicating, and focus on the computer and radar screen.

If the shift system has its flip side in terms of the toll on health and social life, it also has a silver lining. After work hours, the duty pattern (see box) is such that you can pursue personal interests. An MSc in physics, Srivastava has a doctorate in electronic science from the University of Delhi. “When I got selected in 2003, I had completed my two-year residency requirement for the PhD. I completed my PhD after recruitment,” says Srivastava, 30, now studying for a work-related qualification, or rating in their parlance. Shifts allow most of his colleagues to study further, such as, for an MBA or MTech degree, he adds.

What’s it about?
Air traffic control officers (ATCOs) guide aircraft for safe take-off, landing and en route navigation. They assist not only flights taking off from and landing in India, but also those flights — between other countries — which fly over Indian airspace. They do so by visual observation from the ATC tower’s windows and through radar. During peak hours at midnight at Delhi’s international airport, the busiest in India, an ATCO might have to handle 200-300 planes overflying the Capital’s airspace. ATCOs are employed by Airports Authority of India

Clock Work
ATCOs have shifts — afternoon duty (1.30 to 7.30 pm) one day, morning (7.30 am to 1.30 pm) the second day and night (7.30 pm to 7.30 am) on the third — at Delhi’s international airport. The shift cycle repeats every fourth day. The average morning shift of an ATCO:
7.15-7.30 am: (15-minute overlap between two shifts). Relieve the controller, finishing night duty and take briefing from him. Take over the channel
7.30 am: Understand the traffic position. Give push-back instructions or start-up clearances, depending upon the situation. Guide aircraft to holding point
8.45 am: Brief the other controller on the same shift
9-10.30 am: Go to the restroom/ training session
10.30 am-noon: Resume work
1.15 pm: Brief person taking over shift
1.30 pm: Shift over, time to pack up and go home

The Payoff
The pay scale for junior executive is Rs 16,400- Rs 40,500 a month plus allowances, especially a rating allowance and a stress allowance which can be Rs 6,000 to Rs 24,000. At the highest post as executive director (air traffic management), the salary is Rs 62,000-Rs 80,000 a month

. Logical thinking and analytical ability
. Communication skills (in English)
. Ability to make decisions at jet speed and concentrate hard for hours at a stretch

How do i get there?
After science at the plus two level, earn an engineering degree in electronics, telecommunication, radio engineering, or electrical with first class. If not an engineering degree, you should have a Master’s in electronics or any discipline with electronics, telecom, radio physics, as specialisation subjects or Master’s with physics, maths or computer science with first division. You need to clear the Airports Authority of India’s written test, followed by a voice test, personal interview and a medical examination. After clearing all stages, finalists are sent for training at Civil Aviation Training College, Allahabad and in Hyderabad

Institutes & urls
. Civil Aviation Training College, Allahabad
Finalists are sent to Hyderabad, too (for area control centre training)

Pros & Cons
. You make huge machines and people fly safely
. A high-responsibility job - hundreds and thousands of lives are virtually in your
hands. Zero room for error
. You make decisions independently
. No concept of taking work home
. You can pursue a study programme as many do (e.g. if you are on night duty today,
you’ll have no duty tomorrow and get afternoon shift the day after)
. Shift work may affect social life
. Transferable job
. High stress and strain, shift patterns cause many health problems
. At international airports and a few domestic ones, the ATC operates 24X7
throughout the year. No Sundays off or holiday on festivals, though you can take
compensatory leave

More perks required

A senior controller on the demands of the job

What health hazards are associated with this profession?
You are always working with electronic equipment. Your eyes are glued to the computer monitor or the radar screen. Focusing on the radar screen affects the eyes. Hearing ability deteriorates fast. You take meals at irregular hours.

What’s assessed in the voice test?
The candidate should not stammer. S/he should have clarity of voice and expression. Knowledge of English should be of level 4 as defined by Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.

What happens if, after one of the mandatory medical tests, an air traffic control officer’s (ATCO’s) reports are negative?
He is grounded and given a suitable posting, as per availability. (ATCOs have to periodically undergo medical tests).

Which are the most common ailments that lead to grounding?
Mostly hearing and heart problems. The work causes so much stress and strain that whenever employees get an opportunity outside, they jump ship. The attrition rate among ATCOs is as high as 29 per cent. The job is so strenuous that people even join as junior telecom officers (in public sector telecom companies). Unless they (government) give commensurate perks, the scenario will not improve.

Traits of a successful ATCO?
Presence of mind, logical thinking, English language skills and the ability to concentrate for hours at a stretch. Also, independent decision-making skills — there’s nobody to guide you there. The saying ‘to err is human’ is not applicable here.
Even after landing, unless the aircraft has slowed down, there’s apprehension in the minds of the ATCO in charge — anything can happen. The plane can veer off the runway. People say air traffic control is a monotonous job. In fact, it’s a dynamic job. That’s why the stress and strain.

DK Behera, general secretary, Air Traffic Controllers’ Guild (India) and joint GM (ATC), Airports Authority of India (headquarters), Delhi Interviewed by Rahat Bano