I Want Your Job: Air Traffic Controller

'You've got to react very quickly'
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The Independent Online

Sonia Avogadro, 31, is an area controller at the London Terminal Control Centre, West Drayton, which controls air space in South-east England.

What does an air traffic controller actually do?

My job is about giving instructions and any other relevant information to aircraft, so they can fly as quickly and safely as possible. I work on air traffic flying into Gatwick, organising the planes into a neat sequence so they all come in one after another. I'm in constant radio contact with the pilots, keeping them up-to-date on the weather and any unusual conditions or changes in flight plans. The main thing I need to monitor is the level or altitude I want them to fly at.

What's your typical working day like?

I work in shifts on radar for up to two hours, then I always have a half-hour break, where I'll move around and give my eyes a good rub. The breaks are for safety purposes. A lot of people think air-traffic controllers work in a control tower, but in fact, only 20 per cent do. They're the ones who deal with take-offs and landings. Most of us work at area control centres away from the airport.

What do you really enjoy about your job?

The busier it is, the more you need to focus, but you really feel like you've achieved a lot. And it's a job that means something - you're looking after people's safety, so there's a real consequence to what you do.

I really like the fact that it's always different. You might be working with completely different people, traffic and weather conditions every day. And at the end of your shift, you take your headset off and that's it. You don't have to take the job home with you.

What's not so wonderful about it?

I suppose that working shifts might not suit everybody. Because it's a 24-hour business, there's a lot of getting up early and night shifts. We work a repetitive roster - two mornings, two afternoons, then two nights - so there are six night-shifts a month. The good thing is that the shift pattern is predictable, so at least you can plan your life around it.

What skills do you need to guide air traffic safely?

You've got to be the sort of person who can really focus on the task in hand, and process large amounts of complex data.

Because very complicated air traffic situations can happen extremely quickly, you've got to be calm, stay on the ball, and react very quickly. You also need excellent spatial awareness. And it's really important to be a team player, who is able to get on with a lot of different people.

What kind of special training do you need?

First you have to train for up to 12 months at a college of air-traffic control, using super hi-tech computer simulators, so it's almost like working in a real airspace environment. Once you graduate from the college, you get posted to a unit where you do more practical training, with a mentor, for six months to two years. And when that's finished, you have to sit a final exam.

What advice would you give someone who wanted your job?

Find out as much as you can about aviation in general. I was an air hostess for a while after university, so I've worked on the other side of the business. One day I went up to the control tower for a visit, and thought the job looked fascinating. So I applied, and luckily I got a place to train. I'd say that if you decide to apply, stick with it and be prepared for some very tough training. It's not a walk in the park, but it's very rewarding once you get through it.

What's the salary and career path like?

You get paid £10,000 while you're training at the college, and once you're fully qualified you could progress to earning up to £85,000. There are lots of different career options at the control centres - supervisors, watch managers. You could become an instructor at the college or a mentor, and work with new trainees.

Or you could just stick with it and carry on working as a tower or radar controller, expanding your repertoire and working on different airspace areas.

For more information on training and careers in air traffic control, go to www.natscareers.co.uk

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