Air traffic control is not only one of the youngest professions in the world but also one of the fastest growing ones. A profession that continuously seeks for a change in mind-sets, updation of skills, and enhancement of knowledge while at the same time aims at higher and higher levels of efficiency and safety. It is a balancing act requiring one to be judicious, efficient and risk-taking at the same time. A jugglery of many facets and personalities. A team action albeit with individual responsibilities.

What is it like to be an Air Traffic Controller? What are the trials, tribulations and travails of an ATCO?

For starters, the biggest grouse of any controller is the lack of acknowledgement of the significance and importance of his task. The fact is that there is such little awareness among the general public, including frequent flyers, of the quietly efficient background processes involved in getting an airplane off the ground and back on it. Technology plays a great role; but only as much as its’ user allows it to. From the boarding pass printer to the sophisticated Radars; from the luggage loader to the air traffic controller; every element of technology and its’ users has a part to play.

The flyers only see the duck gracefully floating in the water while the webbed feet underneath are furiously wading away.

Nothing exasperates a controller more than to hear that the sky is so vast and open. It didn’t look so vast to him when two aircraft had a close shave. Certainly, there are rules of the air just like there are rules of the road. The common link being the fallible humans who follow and sometimes break them. To err maybe human but no divine forgiveness awaits the ATC who errs. He does his task in the silent prayer that every passenger that he shares the responsibility of with the pilot reaches their destination safely. And if possible, quickly.

The first development in aviation was the successful takeoff of a heavier-than-air machine by the Wright brothers. Soon, industrialisation took over and there were airplanes being manufactured. Designers, engineers and technicians were born in the aviation world. Flight managers and pilots were being trained. Basic signalling was being developed to land and takeoff. The low density of air traffic meant that no requirement for a ground based control was envisaged. And then, the traffic picked up. A paradigm shift came about in transportation and, soon, man’s need to go faster and faster meant that travel by air was the way to go. In my opinion, the seed of thought for the creation of a system for Air Traffic Control would have been sowed when for the first time two pilots decided to land their aircraft at the same airport at the same time. Intervention of a third party, the intermediary and regulator was required. Air Traffic Control was required.

With the exception of Information Technology, no industry has made such rapid strides like aviation has. In its inceptive stages, not so long ago, Aldis lamps, fireballs, goose-neck flares and plotting the progress of aircraft through maps and marked geographical locations was the order of day. Modern ATC systems enable the surveillance of aircraft with mindboggling accuracies. Four dimensional trajectories talk about prediction levels in metres and seconds. Surveillance systems are networked and airspaces united to create one harmonised entity. The aim remains to increase efficiency while not compromising on safety.

It is the lifelong challenge of the controller to keep himself updated. Rules, instructions, technology, procedures and automation systems change with alarming frequency requiring one to be on his toes at most times. The controller who feels that he has mastered the art is signalling his professional demise.

There are only two options for an air traffic controller. To grow. Or to grow faster.

It is to the credit of the Indian aviation fraternity that we are considered among the best in the world. And certainly, India’s aviation growth has been such that the humans have outrun the machines. It is a recent development, in context to the history of this great nation of ours, that technological advancements, infrastructure development and foreign investments have forced the human resources to play catch up with the technical ones. Technology is racing ahead and suffice to say, the controllers are definitely not trailing.

All said, the job of an ATCO is one of the most challenging and more importantly, satisfying jobs in the world. An appreciative nod from a fellow air traffic controller, a word of gratitude from the pilot, a well-vectored aircraft or a departure pushed just in time, are all it takes to keep a controller motivated. Added recognition from the public and other stakeholders would only add to this.

Sudhir Menon,
Chennai Airport.