DALLAS – When one thinks about air traffic control, the first image that comes to mind is a control tower. However, did you know that controllers also work in radar centers?
Even if Air Traffic Controllers are recognized for their work and responsibilities, many of us don’t know much about the actual job and the daily life of those crucial workers.
With this new interview for Airways’ Jobs in Aviation series, we discover the profession of these people working day and night to ensure aircraft stay safely apart from each other.
To learn more about the job and the daily life of Air Traffic Controllers, Airways had the chance to interview Helena Sjöström, who works in Sweden as a watch supervisor in a radar center and is the vice-president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations (IFATCA).
The Role of an Air Traffic Controller
Noam Ismaaili: Hello and welcome! Can you introduce yourself?
Helena Sjöström: My name is Helena Sjöström and I have been an Air Traffic Controller for more than 30 years. I currently work as a watch supervisor at the Stockholm air traffic control center, and I am also the deputy president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations (IFATCA).
What are lesser-known aspects of the role of an Air Traffic Controller (ATCO)?
Air Traffic Controllers do not only work in airports. Many of them work in control towers, and they are the ones we think about most of the time because the towers are visible. However, many other controllers also work in radar centers.
The towers manage the airspace from the ground up to around 500 meters and stretch out in different directions from the airport between five and eight kilometers, depending on the airport’s configuration.
However, above those 500 meters, other controllers “own” the airspace, as we call it. Most of the time, they are not in the tower: they work in front of radar screens.
The role of an ATCO is to control the airspace. Our top priority is to keep traffic safe and to make sure aircraft are separated. Another big part of our job is also to try to keep efficiency in the system.
What are the main differences between the positions you handle as a controller? Do you have a favorite?
One of the big differences is that the tower controller looks out the window a lot. In large and technically advanced towers, they would also have different kinds of radar systems in the tower as well, including ground radar.
That allows controllers to see the aircraft taxiing even when there is fog. However, when the weather is good enough, tower controllers always look out the window, which we obviously do not do in the radar center.
The approach controller has to handle the approaches, of course, but also the departures out of the airport. I have held a rating in a tower, and I have been an approach controller for most of my career. Right now, I am at the area control center as a supervisor.
Every position has its benefits and its charms. It really is an individual preference. For me, what I like the most is approach control because it is very quick, very fast, and I like that.
Do you often have to deal with unexpected events, such as poor weather?
It does not happen often, but that is indeed a big part of our job. Weather impacts air traffic a lot, but technical systems also sometimes do. That affects traffic and things often don’t turn out as planned, but that is exactly what we are there for, to find solutions to problems that arise. Being a supervisor, problem-solving is the best part of the job.
Have you ever faced an emergency?
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