From a passenger perspective, The National Air Traffic Service, known as NATS, is hidden from sight, yet each year the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services handle 2.6 million flights and 285 million passengers in UK airspace. Elaine Dickins is an Air Traffic Controller at Aberdeen Airport, and gives us a glimpse of life inside this high pressured and extraordinarily responsible role.
Since interviewing Elaine, the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe, causing air traffic volume to severely reduce due to travel restrictions in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.
As of 27 March 2020, air traffic volumes in the UK were down 77%, behind Germany (80%), France, (82%), Spain (85%) and Italy (88%), and are likely to fall further.
NATS CEO, Martin Rolfe has worked through 9/11, the 2010 ash cloud, SARS and the financial crash but says, “This is without a doubt the most challenging situation I have ever experienced in my working life.”
Rolfe makes it clear that there may be less planes in the air, but there’s important work to be done:
“During this time, myself and the rest of the leadership team here at NATS have had two priorities; to look after our people and protect the critical operation on which the country still depends at a time like this.”NATS CEO, Martin Rolfe
For now, sit back, relax and enjoy a few coronavirus free moments as Elaine takes us inside the control tower.
What inspired you to become an air traffic controller? The job was recommended to me by a friend. I was looking for a career change and they just happened to suggest it at the right time. I hadn’t even considered it as an option before that point, but the more I looked into the role the more I realised it would be a great fit for me.
What are the requirements to become an air traffic controller?
Full details can be found on our website. The essential requirements include being over 18 years old with at least five GCSEs or equivalent between grades A*-C. From a personal perspective I would encourage anyone who is interested in becoming an air traffic controller to give it a go. You really don’t know if you have the skills until you try. You could be the perfect fit.
What route did you take into the role?
I studied Oceanography at university and worked in that field for several years before finding that I needed a change. I applied to NATS without too many expectations having heard that the selection process is quite challenging and was delighted when I was offered a job. A few weeks before my training course started I was told I’d be training as an airport controller which is the route I was hoping for.
Tell us about your career so far
I started training with NATS in July 2017 doing both a tower and an approach course (see the difference between tower and approach controllers later in the blog) at the NATS training college which took around nine months. Once I passed the final course I was given my posting – Aberdeen, and moved up there to start my unit-specific training. I trained in the tower first and achieved my first validation after six and a half months. I have now started training on radar so my days involve a mixture of controlling by myself in the tower and training on radar when this is available.
Talk us through a day in the life of an air traffic controller
The day always starts with a briefing. We log into a portal that tells us of any upcoming changes to regulations or any unit-specific information that will affect us. Then I go up to the tower and plug in. We normally operate two positions in the tower at Aberdeen – controlling aircraft in the air and on the ground. We rotate between these positions throughout the day.
As a standard we do an hour in position, followed by a 30 minute break, and then an hour in the other position and so on. We can control for up to two hours at a time, but it’s usual to keep some slack in the system in case something unexpected happens.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like the varied nature of the work and the challenges it can present. No two days are the same and we constantly need to adapt our plans as the situation changes to make sure we’re being as efficient as possible. We can’t take our work home with us and I love that however hard I’ve worked during the day I know that when my shift is finished I can switch off and relax.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Due to the oil and gas operations in the North Sea we have a lot of helicopters operating from Aberdeen that we need to integrate with the fixed wing traffic (aircraft) which adds a lot of complexity to the job. The amount of traffic can vary a lot during a shift and we often need to go from a fairly light workload to working at full intensity over a very short period of time. Maintaining concentration and anticipating when the traffic will increase was one of the things I found hardest whilst training.
Can you explain which air traffic roles are based at airport control towers, and which roles are based at Swanwick/Prestwick?
There are different types of Controllers, with different skill sets and responsibilities based on their roles. The type of controller you are determines where you work.
Typically based in a Control Tower at an airport, an Aerodrome Controller (sometimes referred to as a ‘Tower Controller’) is responsible for the safety and movement of aircraft around an airfield.
They issue clearances to take off and land, and also route aircraft around the airfield so they can taxi safely between runways, stands and other areas they need to travel to.
Typically based at Control Centres (such as those at Prestwick and Swanwick in the UK), Area Controllers manage aircraft at higher altitudes (often five thousand feet and above). They are responsible for aircraft in the climb, descent and en-route phase of the flight.
Area Controllers issue levels, headings and speeds to separate aircraft, providing a safe and expeditious routing through the sector of airspace that they manage.
Approach Controllers are typically based at airports, but those managing the big London airports are based at Swanwick.
They manage aircraft approaching an airport, putting them into the most efficient sequence to land. They also manage those that have just departed the airport in their initial phases of flight.
Approach Controllers may also manage flights transiting the airspace above an airport.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become an air traffic controller?
It’s a great career so definitely go for it! There is a lot of information available online about the application process and it’s well worth reading as much as you can so you know what to expect at each stage. Some of the skills we look for such as good spatial awareness and the ability to work under pressure are hard to practice for, but there are plenty of online games and tools that you can use to give yourself an advantage. The training takes a long time and it’s hard work but you come out the other side with a very rewarding career.
How do you cope with the pressure of your role?
We’re very well trained which gives us the techniques we need to handle the situations we will encounter, so generally I don’t feel under pressure while controlling. Even at high workloads we have a lot of tools and options to reduce the pressure. We can anticipate situations and adjust our priorities as needed to keep things safe. Regular breaks mean that we never need to maintain high intensity for too long.
If you weren’t an air traffic controller, what would you be?
I honestly have no idea! I’m interested in computer games and programming so maybe something along those lines!
How will air traffic control evolve to cope with the predicted doubling of air traffic expected by the late 2030’s? (answered by NATS) In normal times (not during the COVID-19 pandemic) UK airspace handles 2.6 million flights a year, carrying over 285 million passengers. The government forecasts that will rise to 355 million passengers on 3.25 million flights by 2030 and without significant changes to the network of flight paths and air routes, the UK could experience 50 times as many delays as we do today by 2030, with one in three flights delayed by more than 30 minutes.
While NATS is spending £600 million on new technology to boost its capacity, government and industry support is needed to improve the UK’s network of flight paths and air routes.
The UK’s airspace system has not been significantly redrawn since the 1950s, despite the rapid growth of air travel. Airspace modernisation would involve redrawing flight paths “in a coordinated way” to better accommodate current aircraft and ease flows where air traffic has grown the most.
Elaine. Thank you for giving us an insight into a fascinating and fundamental role that is pivotal in keeping air traffic flying safely in our (usually) busy skies. If you would like to hear Air Traffic Control interactions with aircraft listen to a real recording from a flight between London Heathrow and Manchester Airport by visiting the Plane Talking section of the NATS website. NATS also has an excellent blog that you might like to follow.