Behind the Flight

By Aklile Tsige

Everyone heading to Addis Ababa Bole International Airport could see a camel-necked tower taller than the old one to the left. It’s more visible from some hundred or plus meters away just outside from the airport compound. It’s also a little bit far from the ongoing terminal expansion. Who are working here? What’s being done here? What makes the profession unique?

Pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, but there is a less-visible group of people who are just as essential-Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs). The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) currently has nearly 120 ATCs nationwide out of which more than half of them are based at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at takeoff, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their aircraft safely.

The 25-meter ATC tower at AABIA between the tails of ET aircrafts

The-24-meter long camel-necked Air Traffic Control Tower has embraced various control rooms such as the approach and the area control ones which make up the Flight Information Center (FIC) as well as the tower (the room on top of the tower) where the ATCs directly communicate with pilots.

“The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the controls of the approach controllers.” tells an ATC to ABN.

These approach controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When the aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

During peak air travel times in USA, there are about 5,000 airplanes in the sky every hour. This translates to approximately 50,000 aircrafts operating in USA skies each day.

But in Ethiopia 50 airplanes fly over the nation’s sky during peak hours while the number varies across off-peak hours and 400 airplanes operating in Ethiopia’s skies every day.

One of the major factors affecting the works of ATCs is age. They are usually expected to have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure.

ECAA requires that applicants be 25 years old or younger, and have first degree mainly in natural science  fields such as computer science, physics, statistics mathematics and geography when they apply for the job, which they would take after having taken a 6 to 8 months ATC training given at the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority Training Center (ECAATC).

As per the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requirement, pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate, but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (Zero to Nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Yohannes  Abera who is currently working as senior instructor at the ECAATC says, “It can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots with heavy accent,”

Various studies have shown that many airplane incidents and accidents occurred due to communication break down between pilots and ATCs. Thus, they further recommend that the aviation industry should enhance the provision of aviation English trainings and English proficiency rating of pilots and ATCs.

In most cases ATCs switch feelings between stress and boredom because they are responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job related stress.

“We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” says an ATC who requested anonymity, and continues: “staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most ATC take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.”

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011, as quoted by Suzanne Raga (2017), found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules.

When it comes to ECAA’s ATCs, the situation is almost similar, if not worse. In mid April 2018 there was a 30-40 minutes flight delay of airplanes of Ethiopian Airlines scheduled to fly to various international and domestic destinations.

This delay, according to ECAA Director General, Col. Wessenyeleh Hunegnaw, occurred due to few ATCs who didn’t carry out their duty properly. He added that the ATCs’ question is appropriate and they have to deal with their complaints while doing their work.

On the contrary, some ATCs who have requested anonymity indicated that the cause of the delay on that particular time of the day was mainly the absence of those ATCs who were exhausted and suffered unfavorable and busy-shift schedules, adding that as ATCs are working under stressful and hectic environment, the concerned government body should respond to our long-lasting question of having fair incentive and conducive working environment.

Well-known that the Ethiopian Aviation Industry is pioneer in Africa, and has been showing magnificent progress in terms of safety, security and growing air transport services. With the ever increasing growth of the national carrier and the general aviation, the industry, especially the question of this invisible group, needs to be given more attention than ever.

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