Photo credit: Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS)

 

Not all of us can boast of workplaces with a view, but for Sheena Ng, 31, a good day presents an unobstructed panoramic view of Singapore and even the surrounding islands like Pulau Tekong. As an Air Traffic Controller (ATC), Sheena is responsible for ensuring planes fly in and out of Changi and Seletar Airport in a safe and efficient manner.

Sheena, with Changi Control Tower in the background

Sheena has been in the air traffic control scene for five years.

Though stress is inevitably part and parcel of most jobs, the intensity of her work and the weight resting on her shoulders are not quite the same as most. Sheena shares a deeper insight into the role of an air traffic controller.

So… what exactly does an air traffic controller do?

There are different areas of duties assigned to an ATC. As an Aerodrome controller, Sheena's responsibilities revolve around providing air traffic control services to the aircraft landing at or departing from Changi Airport. This includes guiding aircraft on the ground with taxi instructions and issuing departure, en-route and landing clearances. With over a hundred airlines and a flight taking off or landing every 80 seconds, Changi Airport is the world’s sixth busiest airport in the world.

Different scopes for different folks

Other than the Aerodrome controllers, Sheena elaborates that there are also Area and Approach air traffic controllers.

Approach controllers are delegated the duties of rendering air traffic control services to aircraft within 40 nautical miles (NM) from Changi Airport, and ensuring that all arrival or departure flights are at their appropriate and desired landing speeds and altitudes. They are also responsible for managing flights operating in and out of the neighbouring aerodromes.

Area controllers provide air traffic control services to aircraft which are beyond 40NM from Changi Airport, but still within the Singapore Flight Information Region. Besides coordinating with other air navigation service providers on flights coming in and going out of airspace that’s managed by Singapore, they also assist in pilots’ requests for changes in routes and/or aircraft altitudes.

It’s not like the movies

You’d be forgiven for thinking air traffic controllers’ workspaces resemble what you see on screen – noisy and bustling with activity. However, the truth is far from it. While on duty, Sheena shares that razor focus is imperative and distractions must be kept to a minimum. In fact, “no mobile phones are allowed in the control room and all noise is kept to a minimum within the control room so that communications can be heard clearly.”

Room for error? Zero.

As Aerodrome controllers are essentially guardians of the runways, safe take-offs and landings are their number one priority. Also, because every situation is unique, they have been trained to keep calm and react accordingly – so as to ensure safe and smooth operations.

Sheena explains, “We put into practice the theory we learned in the past, and then do what’s best for the situation. An example of an emergency that we might encounter at work would be hydraulic leakages, which could cause a fault in the plane’s landing gear. If a taxiway or runway needs to be cleaned, there could be delays to other flights. This is where we are trained to plan workarounds immediately to minimise disruption to the flow of traffic.”

Teamwork makes the dream work

Air traffic controllers are split into four different groups. Each group then follows an 8-day work cycle, with 9-hour shifts, and are given two rest days in between. Due to the intensity of their job, air traffic controllers get 30-minute breaks every one and a half to two hours of work at their control positions. With an aircraft departing or landing in Changi Airport roughly every 80 seconds, situational awareness is one of the most important criteria in being an air traffic controller. “Everyone has to work as a team and must be equally aware of what’s going on”, she emphasises.

Perks of the job (or not)

Contrary to popular belief, air traffic controllers do not actually receive free or discounted flight tickets. She laughs, “As we are not affiliated to any airlines, I’m afraid we don’t actually have such perks. I do wish it were true though!”

 

As with any job, Sheena believes a positive attitude is fundamental for those keen on embarking on this career path. “It is very important to keep an open mind and be flexible and adaptable in this job. Also, (look forward) to learn new things every day!”