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What is air traffic control – a controller’s perspective

Shailendra Pandaram

Shailendra Pandaram – “Panda” to his teammates – has worked for Airways as an air traffic controller for 20 years.  These days, he’s a team leader, managing Airways’ enroute controllers. 

I’m an air traffic controller – so when I meet someone for the first time, a familiar blank look slips across their face.  Only 350 people across this country are qualified to do this job, so it’s no wonder really. 

Often, people think that I’m from the crew on the runway waving those ping pong paddles at the pilot.

Or that I’m that guy in the movies, leaping up and screaming at aircraft on my walkie talkie.

Sam - radar centreIt comes as a surprise, then, when they find out that my working environment is about as calm and serene as it gets – in fact it looks a bit more like this:

Do you want to know what air traffic control really is?

When it gets back to basics, air traffic control is about preventing collisions between aircraft. We do that – that’s our raison d'être, our lifeblood.

These days, however, we do more than just keep those aircraft a fair distance from each other. We have technologies that help us expedite the traffic flow and provide efficiencies on the tarmac and in the skies.

This is where it gets interesting. Those ears at the party prick up. Last time you boarded an aircraft, did you give any thought to the air traffic controller giving your flight clearance to depart?

Chances are we also cleared the way for your aircraft to arrive a few minutes early, or to ascend a little higher than planned to avoid that spot of turbulence.

An unspilt coffee? A few extra minutes with the kids? More than likely, your airline has kept your ticket prices at an affordable level because of the efficiencies brought about by effective air traffic control.

Less airborne holding and more direct flight paths mean reduced fuel burn and fewer CO2 emissions. Good for passengers, good for airlines and pretty good for our planet too.

Let me explain some of the intricacies of air traffic control

Think of the skies above us as an invisible motorway system, and aircraft as the cars on the road, with a series of air traffic controllers responsible for every stage of the journey.

My tower controller colleagues have the job of directing the aircraft out of the garage, through the city streets (and past the guy mowing the airfield grass, for instance) and onto the motorway. From their eagle perch at the top of the airport’s control tower, they have visibility of each aircraft movement, as well as radar imagery of approaching and departing aircraft.

The tower controller then hands the flight over to me. I’m a radar controller, based at Airways’ radar centre in suburban Christchurch.  Using radar systems, I keep an eye on the aircraft and its proximity to other aircraft as they travel along that ‘motorway’.  We divide this role up between three radar controllers – one handing the departing aircraft as it climbs, an area controller taking care of the aircraft ‘en route’, and another managing the descent towards the destination airport.

We also have Oceanic controllers, working out of our Auckland radar centre.  They look after aircraft as they head out of (and into) New Zealand, and around the top of the North Island.

Take a look at who’s in control for each stage of flight.

Usually, aircraft fly on predetermined ‘tracks in the sky’. Airways has set these tracks using our very smart Performance Based Navigation technology. 

That all sounds a bit simple, and there would be more cups of tea on the job if that was all there was to it. 

Of course, there are things like adverse weather to keep us on our toes – and this is New Zealand, a long and narrow island nation, so we have plenty of weather, not to mention many significant mountain ranges.

So, as a radar controller, I guide the aircraft around these obstacles.  If one aircraft needs to ascend to avoid a storm system, I also make sure that other aircraft in the vicinity correspondingly alter their course so they maintain their separation from it. 

Once the flight reaches the zone around the destination airport, another tower controller takes over, guiding the aircraft in to land and to its gate.

... to be continued - check out part 2 of this blog to be published shortly.