Flight Plan

Keeping skies safe

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on March 10, 2018

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Absolute concentration is a must for air traffic controllers — one of the most important jobs in the airline industry — writes Ashwini Phadnis

When you decide to take a flight from Point A to Point B, it is the pilot who makes sure that you reach your destination safely. Right? Well, only partially.

Yes, the training and the learning that the pilot has undergone are significant, but he is not alone in ensuring a safe flight, or for that matter flying from Point A to Point B.

Helping him along are those who work as air traffic controllers (ATCs) to make sure that the flight goes without a hitch.

To understand how an ATC does this, imagine that the sky is a busy highway in which planes are flying pretty much like vehicles on any highway. The only difference is that a pilot sitting in the cockpit monitoring the flight is dependent on an ATC’s help to fly from city to city. The job of an ATC is not simple and while in most jobs one can get by with odd slip-ups or an occasional lapse of concentration, this is not a luxury that an ATC enjoys.

Challenging but interesting

But if you can be mentally sharp all the time, the job is interesting and full of challenges.

For instance, it is the ATC who tells a pilot when to start the engine, where to taxi, when to take off, what speed to fly at and what height to maintain to ensure adequate separation between aeroplanes — he tells the pilot when to descend, how fast to descend, what the weather at the destination is, gives landing clearance and how to taxi his aeroplane to the parking slot. In short, an ATC is the one who holds all the strings. A pilot is only responsible for the plane that he is flying while the ATC has the larger picture of all the planes flying over an area, taking off and landing.

So specialised has flying become that ATCs have to follow a standard laid down radio phraseology which is common the world over. This helps eliminate any confusion in understanding a particular instruction from an ATC. This phraseology is understood both by the ATC and the pilots so that they can communicate with each other even though they are hundreds of miles apart.

Guiding air traffic is done from the control tower in every airport. “The control tower is one small part of the whole air traffic control scenario,” says an ATC in Delhi. “A person sitting in a control tower in Delhi will not only look after traffic at Delhi airport but also traffic flying about 250 nautical miles from Delhi.”

Further, while five miles between two aircraft is considered sufficient in the case of radar-controlled airspace, a minimum of 15 minutes of flying time are required between two aircraft if no navigational facility is available. Further, this separation has to be maintained in all three dimensions: vertical, lateral and longitudinal. And there are different rules for different dimensions. These separations between all the different aircraft flying in the airspace are handled by ATCs.

Guiding the aircraft in an airspace requires immense concentration and also knowledge of all the laid down concepts. Debunking the popular misconception that ATCs play favourites and allow aircraft of some airlines over others, an ATC explains that they follow the principle of treating all aircraft as “equal” unless, of course, there is an emergency. “It is laid down that we follow first-come, first-served with least average delay for everyone,” said an ATC.

India provides ATC support almost up to the Equator with the country being divided into five regions called Flight Information Regions -- Delhi FIR, Mumbai FIR, Chennai FIR , Guwahati FIR and Kolkata FIR.

What it takes

According to the Airports Authority of India (AAI), to become a junior executive (ATC) a candidate must hold a regular full-time bachelor’s degree in science with physics and mathematics from a recognised university with minimum 60 per cent marks. Or, the candidate should have a full-time regular bachelor’s degree in engineering in any discipline from a recognised university, with minimum 60 per cent marks. Besides, a candidate should have proficiency in spoken and written English. The upper age limit is 27 years.

With these qualifications, a candidate also has to undergo training which is provided at the Civil Aviation Training Colleges in Allahabad and Hyderabad. The modules taught include air traffic services, aerodromes and ground aids, air legislation, meteorology, and communication procedures, among other subjects.

After a person has completed the training he or she starts work as a Junior Executive (ATC). The state-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI) is the sole employer of civil ATCs in India although some small players like HAL employ ATCs. Some small private airports also recruit ATCs mainly from among AAI employees.

Those selected for the post of junior executives (ATC) have to give a surety bond for ₹5 lakh to serve AAI for three years. According to the Airports Authority of India the pay scale for a Junior Executive (ATC) is ₹16,400-40,500 per month. Additionally, a JE (ATC) is entitled to various allowances (rating allowances), depending on the ATC skills one acquires and the city in which one is posted.

An ATC has to do a minimum 90 hours training with an instructor which takes about 5-6 months. After this is done the instructor certifies the candidate that he or she can handle the job.

Then there is also a rating exam in which their handling of live traffic is scrutinised. After an ATC manages to complete these steps, there is a viva voce. After passing the viva, the person is authorised to do independent work.

This is a transferable job and when an ATC moves from one airfield to another the training process starts again. “The topography is different, the obstacles are different, so stringent checks are there as safety is in the hands of a controller,” explained an ATC.

With regard to career progression, an Air Traffic Controller can go up to becoming a Member of the Air Navigation Services which is the number two position in the AAI although ATC members complain that reaching this level is a rarity.

Published on September 06, 2016

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