Monday, December 21, 2009

Air Traffic Control-The Future

Many of us look with envy at the glamorous world of flying. We started off as kids watching fighter pilots over Biggin Hill and the White Cliffs in war films. Then on our first foreign holidays we saw the pilot in classy uniform striding across the tarmac surounded by glamorous 'trolley dollies', and so it goes on. All the time we see the guys in the tower with headsets on, peering at radar and guiding the planes in.

Well, like everyting else things are changing apace in aviation, so how is it affecting the role of the Air Traffic Control Officer? Galavamp is a new blogger who writes The British Patriot. He is also an ATCO. I have had a few chats with Galavamp about his concerns for the future of this branch of aviation, and the implications for safety, and following is an article he has kindly submitted as guest blogger, introducing us to his professional world.

I’m honoured to write this article for Gregg’s blog and hopefully you all find this interesting and informative. To begin with, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m an air traffic controller in the UK. I’ve been doing this job for almost 9 years now and I can honestly say I can think of nothing else I’d rather be doing. Quite literally, I’m paid to do my hobby. And to answer what you’re already thinking: No, it’s not stressful! Does it get the brain matter working hard? Of course. Does it get the heart pumping and the adrenalin running? Undoubtedly! But stress? No. Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) get a real buzz from the job they do but it’s not a job that everyone can do. Just to be accepted onto a training course we have to go 3 stages of selection tests. Here we are tested on our numeracy, the ability to cope under pressure, spatial awareness, motivation and a raft of other things. We have to pass a CAA Class 1 Medical Examination which includes electro-cardiograms, not to mention the dreaded HR interview.
Only then are we allowed to begin initial training.
Initial training consists of a number of modules. At the end of each module we have practical, written and oral exams. Fail any of these and you get the dreaded ‘chop’ and your ATCO career is over before it’s practically begun. If you successfully navigate these modules, you will be posted to an airport or air traffic control centre. Here you will begin live training which takes up to 18months. Again, at various times during this live training, you will be tested with practical, written and oral exams. Fail any of these you could be chopped. Finally, after a final accreditation exam you will be signed off as a fully qualified ATCO. This process can take up to 3 years from day 1. And the testing still isn’t over. Every year you have to re-qualify with a practical and oral examination. You also have to maintain a current Class 1 Medical. So, pressure? Definitely. But if all of the above manifests itself in you as stress, then this isn’t the job for you.
The idea of the above was just to give you an idea of the intense training that goes into turning Joe Bloggs off the street into a fully-qualified, operational ATCO. Gregg sent me an article from the Manchester Evening News, which was what prompted him to invite me to write this article, about the closure of Manchester Area Control Centre (MACC) and its move to the new Prestwick Centre in Ayrshire and what the potential future for ATC is.
There are 3 kinds of ATCOs. There are Aerodrome Controllers who work at the top of the Control Towers at airports and are usually the most visible to travelling members of the public. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t use fluorescent ping pong bats! We use a headset, a radio and the MKI eyeball to give instructions to aircraft. Aerodrome ATCOs control (obviously!) the movement of aircraft and airfield vehicles on the aprons, taxiways and runways as well as small private aircraft flying within the vicinity of the airport.
The next kind of ATCO is an Approach Controller. The Approach Controller will take aircraft from 40miles out and position them in a sequence for landing. They will also be responsible for separating departing aircraft from arrival aircraft. These controllers use their headset, a radio and a radar. In the UK, most Aerodrome ATCOs are dual-trained as Approach Radar controllers. The only exception to this is for the 5 main London airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City). Here the Aerodrome ATCOs will only work in the Control Tower at the airport. The Approach Controllers operate from Swanwick Centre on the South Coast in Hampshire.
The third type of Controller is an Area Radar Controller. These ATCOs are also known as ‘En-route Controllers’ and look after aircraft between the departure Approach Controller and the arrival Approach Controller. They operate blocks of airspace of defined dimensions and aim to keep aircraft separated by a minimum of 1000ft vertically, or 5 miles laterally. In the UK at present there are 3 Area Centres. ‘London Control’ is, as mentioned earlier, based at Swanwick on the South Coast. These controllers will look after aircraft flying above approximately 19000 ft to 66000 ft from the Channel Islands in the South to just north of Newcastle in the North to the coast of Belgium and Holland in the East towards Ireland in the west.
‘Scottish Control’ is based at a brand new centre in Prestwick in Ayrshire, Scotland. The controllers here will look after all flights north of Newcastle as well as almost all trans-Atlantic flights between Europe and North America. The ATCOs at Scottish Centre will be joined in January by their colleagues from the Manchester Area Control Centre when the sub-centre is closed.
So where does this leave the future of ATC?
It’s important to look at ATC, not just with a British perspective, but also with a European perspective. It’s only for political reasons that in the UK we even have 2 main centres. Either Scottish Centre or Swanwick Centre could be incorporated into the other. In the future the big plan is for 5 European ‘Super-Centres’. Think of it is an EU for the skies above Europe and you get an idea. Realistically, I don’t think the threat to ATCOs comes from European politicians or bureaucrats however. I believe it could potentially come from future technology.
Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) always strive to improve safety. Combined with this is the modern-day phenomenon of ‘environmental-awareness’. Presently, aircraft fly in narrow corridors called ‘airways’. These are classed as ‘controlled’ airspace and the airspace can only be entered with the permission of ATCOs. Uncontrolled airspace is exactly that. Anyone can fly there, they don’t have to speak to ATCOs and can operate as they wish. However, in the name of environmental-awareness, airlines now look to route in as direct a manner as possible. This saves fuel, which saves emissions which therefore makes it more agreeable to the environment. However, if an aircraft, for example, took off from Heathrow and flew in a straight line to Aberdeen they would be in and out of ‘controlled’ airspace. Not ideal. Moves are slowly afoot to change this and there are tools which are being developed for ATCOs which would highlight conflictions between aircraft well in advance. This could eventually mean the job of an Area ATCO (in my humble opinion) evolving into something more akin to that of a modern-day airline pilot ie monitoring equipment with minimal ‘hands-on’ flying.
However, this would mean leaving a helluva lot of trust in computers and I firmly believe it will be decades before a system such as this could ever be properly implemented with the full trust of operators (ATCOs) and users (the flying public).
Aviation is always evolving and safety (despite what the uninformed press would have you believe) improves every year, through both changes in operational procedures and improvements in technology. However, for all our faults, humans are still the most reliable and thoughtful of computers, able to think laterally and logically in ways that computers are still not capable of. And to be honest, if a computer is ever invented that is capable of operating with the same thought processes as humans, then it’s not just ATCOs that should be worried for their futures....................................


Mark Wadsworth said...

That's a good guest post. Keep 'em coming.

Gregg's Blog said...

Glad you like it Mark.