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I spent a day in the tower of an air traffic controller...

Discovering the control center of Athis Mons, near Paris


Talking to 20 pilots at the same time, managing the traffic of aircrafts flying at 30,000 feet, following the path of 4,000 flights a day during peak periods: this is the day of Kevin Sheehan, an air traffic controller in the center of Athis Mons, south of Paris. TourMaG.com presents the story and mindset of a professional well aware of the future challenges his profession is facing.



Kevin Sheehan and one of his colleagues at their desks - Photo LAC
Kevin Sheehan and one of his colleagues at their desks - Photo LAC
"When my father came to visit my workplace for the first time, he thought it was a casino, just much quieter!"

Kevin Sheehan is an air traffic controller at the center of Athis Mons, south of Paris, not far from Orly airport.

The center is an Area Control Center that guides all the planes that pass over the greater Paris region, flying up to 30,000 feet.

"Travelers often think that once in the air, the plane is independent, when in fact it constantly keeps in contact with the ground," said Kevin Sheehan.

There are five centers in France: Reims, Brest, Bordeaux, Aix -en- Provence and Athis Mons, each in charge of a specific geographic area.

The one at Athis Mons is the 4th European center with nearly 380 air traffic controllers that particularly manage Roissy, Orly, le Bourget, Beauvais and all traffic to the Belgian border.

And unlike the control towers inside airports, they do not have great views on the tarmac.

Controllers manage an average of 1.15 million flights per year, with daily peaks up to 4,000 planes in the summer. "We can talk with up to 20 pilots at the same time," said Kevin Sheehan.

Concentration, discipline and self-control: the keywords of the profession

A heavy responsibility that does not weigh on the relaxed but studious atmosphere.

Controllers work in pairs, one in contact with the pilots (the radar operator), the other on the phone (for structure) to manage the flight path to other areas.

A role that they tradeoff every hour before taking an hour break in order to rest their attention.

Because concentration, self-control, and discipline prove to be essential qualities for this job.

It’s also important to be good with numbers while speaking perfect English.

"Some candidates in the application process were excellent scientists but did not have a satisfactory language proficiency which is the primary qualification needed" said Kevin Sheehan.

That is because to join the profession, one must first pass the selective exam from the ENAC school.

Each year, the school opens positions as needed. In 2013, only forty spots were available, against 200 at the time of our controller.

After his graduation, the young controller still had to undergo skills training on the chosen site, between 18 months to two years.

His work schedule is offset with three work days, then three days off, all on a cycle of 12 days.

He is also rewarded with an entry salary of 5000 euros, rising to 8000 towards towards the end of his career for a 32 hours week.

These revenues are often called out by the press portraying controllers as well to do.

But this salary range is not really far from that of engineers who have a similar level of education. And it is lower by 20-50% that the average salary of their European counterparts.

Air traffic controllers work with airline companies

Productivity constraints also affect their profession. Even though he ensures not feeling any daily pressure, Kevin Sheehan knows he’s being observed, aware that his center must be more productive - DR
Productivity constraints also affect their profession. Even though he ensures not feeling any daily pressure, Kevin Sheehan knows he’s being observed, aware that his center must be more productive - DR
In fact, far from being locked in an ivory tower as they are often negatively blamed for, Kevin Sheehan and his colleagues seem well aware of the commercial realities of the sector.

"We understand the budgetary constraints that airline companies are facing," he says.

He says that the controllers are now working hand in hand with airline companies to optimize the layout of new roads and think about the future of air transport.

"Our first objective is, and has always been, to guide planes on the shortest route" he explains referring to the European regulations that hopes to reduce distance coverage by aircrafts by modifying map layouts.

However, a straight line trip is a challenge in a sky full of prohibited and military zones that commercial flights have to bypass.

Kevin Sheehan and his colleagues try every day to avoid these vast territories, visible on control screens. "Fortunately, the army agrees to work with us today, which was unimaginable 20 years ago" he exclaims.

It also seeks to group aircrafts to better manage their trajectory on one single road and limit their waiting time.

Indeed, productivity constraints also affect their profession. Even though he ensures not feeling any daily pressure, Kevin Sheehan knows he’s being observed, aware that his center must be more productive

"Some would like to reduce the number of controllers to lower taxes. But that would create a longer waiting time for airplanes and therefore lead to greater fuel emission. We must find the right balance ."

Above all, he hopes that the economic imperatives will never outweigh the safety of the sky.

Written by Laury-Anne CHOLEZ translated by Joséphine Foucher the 19/04/2014
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