Without them, we would use boats. No airline would fly. No one would plan a weekend shopping trip, an overseas vacation or visits from far-flung family.
Their work was duly acknowledged on Sunday, the 52nd International Day of the Air Traffic Controller.
Every year, the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization pauses for a moment to mark the day in late October 1961, when 12 European countries met in Amsterdam, Holland, to found the European Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations.
The organization has since grown to encompass Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa-Middle East, representing more than 50,000 air traffic controllers in 137 countries, 27 of them throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Cayman Islands is one of them, and while no special ceremonies were planned for Sunday, Jeremy Miller, one of 15 air traffic controllers at Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport and Cayman Brac’s Charles Kirkonnell Airport – working alongside three trainee controllers and three assistants – says the demands and stresses are similar to anywhere, and that “we are just trying to get public awareness of the safety of air traffic control.”
“In Cayman, we do not have the high volume of traffic, but the stress levels, the workload, are still as daunting as in the U.S. You have to be trained almost like a military guy.”
Training and demands of the job
Mr. Miller, a controller for nine years, completed a 10-month course at Trinidad’s International Civil Aviation Organization-certified College of Air Traffic Control in Port au Spain, followed by three months of on-the-job training.
Every 13 months, he – and other controllers – undergo a refresher course to maintain their certification, overseen by Cayman’s the Civil Aviation Authority.
While most air traffic control employs radar to ensure ICAO-required aircraft separation, Cayman, because of its relatively low traffic volume, uses “procedural” control, relying on trained individuals. Ground-based navigational aids detail horizontal and vertical separation of aircraft according to time, distance, height and location. Meanwhile, air traffic controllers have to visualize the location of each flight based on its route, speed, altitude and estimated times as they pass predetermined points.
The controllers then separate each aircraft based on the progress board and their best judgment.
Cayman’s controllers occupy the airport tower behind Beacon House, the edge-of-runway headquarters of the Aviation Authority. Each controller works a seven-hour shift, tracking both departures and arrivals, although hopes are that the functions will be separated in the near future.
Mr. Miller says his team is just now coming into the highest-pressure months of the year as tourist arrivals start to mount.
“In the winter, we get between 150 and 200 aircraft movements [arrivals and departures] on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays, between about 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., we get about 50 movements. We are pushed to the extreme from November through February or March,” he says.
Thousands of lives are at stake, of course, but the operation pales in comparison with places like London’s Heathrow, New York’s JFK, Washington’s Dulles or even Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok.
Heathrow and Hong Kong, Mr. Miller says, will have hundreds of controllers, overseeing “hundreds of movements throughout an eight-hour period, similar to Atlanta or Miami.”
The demands are so great, he says, that an individual can only work “on two-hour intervals, then go on break for an hour because of the stress.”
In Cayman alone, Mr. Miller says, he will sometimes handle eight aircraft simultaneously, looking after imminent departures, the “aerodrome operation,” while processing communications from Cuba, as incoming flights come within 40 minutes of arrival, the “approach operation.”
“The tower moves aircraft on the ground to take off, and the approach controller separates the planes as we get information from Havana. At the moment, I do both of these. With eight planes, I get so concentrated on air altitude, and crossing at 4,000 feet, and then you also need to give a second and third aircraft an altitude.
“Then you get the departures and have to figure out how you get him out.”
He hasn’t made a mistake yet, but the potential is ever present: “In a busy period, you are so concentrated, you’re almost in ‘a zone.’ Without much activity, when you’re not so busy, that’s when you can make mistakes.”
Every air traffic controller is responsible for a “section” of the sky. “Each controller has his own grid and they hand off to each other” as aircraft move in four dimensions.
“In the future,” he said, “I would like to progress to a different style of ATC, which would require more [personnel],” assigning departures and arrivals to separate controllers.
Rules vary internationally
Some rules vary between Montreal’s ICAO and Washington’s Federal Aviation Administration, creating separate organizations. Montreal, for example, allows ATCs to work until age 65, whereas Washington enforces retirement at age 56.
Unlike in Cayman, ATC operations at larger airports are usually privatized, Mr. Miller said, provided by companies under contract to airport management.
“The company would supply ATCs all over Europe, with different countries contracted to different agencies. Dubai, for example, he said, “comes under the U.K.”
One of the concerns at the ICAO, on fact, is that privatization raises issues of accountability.
“As an independent business now responsible to [aviation regulators], air traffic service providers can expect increasing regulation of their activities – and this will include items such as certification standards for their equipment (previously not even a question when combined as a government department),” according to a 2007 ICAO report.
Managing a provider’s behavior, however, means regulators must be able to suspend – or even revoke – a license, replacing the company with another to maintain continuity of service.
“It will not be long before there are multiple air traffic service providers in any given state’s airspace.” Anticipated changes will free air traffic management from the restrictions of national boundaries, meaning the provider “will truly become an international business and have to deal with multiple legal jurisdictions, just like any other international business.
The Airports Authority declined to comment on proposals for airport expansion and whether it might affect air traffic control, but Walter Ebanks, senior manager of Air Navigation Services, offered his appreciation to ATCs: “On behalf of the Airports Authority, I commend our Cayman Islands team for their professionalism, track record and dedication to maintaining aviation safety in the Cayman Islands. Their combined efforts contribute to the overall safety of travelers throughout the world and we recognize them on this special day.”