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Your life in her hands

AirtrafficIn an occasional series on unusual jobs, here is a profile of  a job, which would traditionally be associated with a high degree of constant pressure, where the ramifications of of a mistake could be horrendous: and that role is that of an air traffic controller.

Fran Slater, who has worked the UK’s main air traffic control company, NATS Holdings, for two decades and she describes her job, why she loves it and why it is not as fraught as many people may think.

Slater, on leaving university, did not know what to do, but on her husband’s suggestion, she applied and was offered a job, which she decided to try for six months and then move if it was not to her liking. 20 years on, she is still there, finds it suits her perfectly and she loves it.

Air-traffic controllers rquire at least five GCSEs, including English and maths and there is also a lot of psychometric testing as part of the process.

The initial training programme takes about a year, at college, where basic universal theories are taught, She says this involves hard work, using simulators, visits to airfields, learning about airlines, planes and aviation laws. She was then sent to a unit for on-the-job experience.

This experience would involve a tower, where she instructed aircraft to take off and land, or a radar centre, watching screens, telling planes where to go, to climb and descend. This could last a year, meaning the training process is between two and two and- a-half years in total.

Even then, you are not put in sole control, there is always a controller behind you, with gizmos that can cut through on the radio if you do anything wrong, although she says (worryingly), the only way to learn, is to do the job for real.

One would assume the job comes with an enormous amount of pressure and Slater says: “You are pretty composed and we’re trained to cope with pressure. On an average day there are no problems, but we are trained to cope with kind of emergency; maybe something going wrong with the plane, or someone taken ill on board.” She says she doesn’t think about the pressure; she does her job and then goes home.

In terms of consistency, most days are fairly similar to all others; she performs the same tasks regularly, but each day is different. “A thirty second delay in the take-off of a plane can make a huge difference to its flight path. You always have to think on your feet.”

When asked if she has come close to a serious incident, she says that they deal with emergencies on a regular basis, but that standards are very high and they do there best to keep planes a really good distance apart at all times.

What is your typical working day?

“Today I am starting an afternoon shift at 2pm; I’ll get in about 15 minutes early and go to my briefing area, to see if we have had any specific instructions, maybe a piece of equipment isn’t working, or an airfield is shut. I’ll check the weather, put on my headset, watch the last part of the person’s shift I’m taking over from and then get to work.”

The sessions on a radio last for around an hour, with a maximum of 90 minutes per session, after which they must take a half hour break. “Normally I work somewhere between five and six hours during a shift of eight hours.”

How do you unwind at the end of a shift?

I try to chill out for half an hour, maybe watch some television and have a glass of wine. Howevevr, there’s not a lot to come down from. It’s a relaxing environment and one of the few jobs where you finish and don’t have to worry about catching up with a backlog the next day – because whoever has taken over from you is doing it by default. There’s no need to take your work home with you, but your mind is working quite fast at the end of a day, so you need half an hour until your brain has slowed enough to get to

What is the average salary for an air traffic controller?

The average figure is £80,000, but it varies, depending on whether you are based at a busy tower, or in a key position working with one of the major London hubs.

Do people have misconceptions about the job?

Absolutely. A lot of people think air traffic control are the officials who wave batons at the planes. When I first started, I had people ask me “if I had to buy my own ping-pong bats”. People don’t understand what air traffic involves. So it is pretty much  a hidden job in that sense, a background job which keeps the world running.

I don’t see it as stressful; if you can’t cope with the job, you won’t get to do it. Once you’re through the training period, you are set up in a position that is really enjoyable – and, if you want it, for life.

Is it an underrated job?

Yes, I think so. It’s a well-paid job that provides a great service.

Will you do this for the rest of your career?

Absolutely. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be.


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