Thursday, June 13, 2024

Air Traffic Control Calls For A Makeover As Congestion Intensifies

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor, IADB

It is unlikely that you have ever been to a party or a function and been introduced to somebody who said he was an air traffic controller. The people who work in Air Traffic Control (ATC) are generally socially reticent, courtesy of the stress of their job. They also tend to be conventional, meaning they are usually detail-oriented and organised and like working in a structured environment.

It is a tough business and one of commercial aviation’s most important aspects. Few of us realise how vital it is to have a strong ATC system that supervises take off, landing and separation of aircraft. This becomes even more important as a safety aspect with major airports facing congestion and more aircraft coming into the picture. Indian uplift domestically hovers at the 400,000 passengers per day mark, a huge 60% lift from 2020 and rising.

Against that news, a report in The Hindu newspaper not so long back makes scary reading: “Air traffic controllers (ATCOs) at some of the busiest airports in the country such as Delhi are unable to get their mandatory break of 30 minutes after every two hours because of manpower crunch, and at airports such as Guwahati, they work 365 days a year without a day off. The shortage of staff has also led to women employees being denied childcare leave.”

You may recall that in 2022 the Air Traffic Controllers Guild informed the airport authority that the automation system in Mumbai had registered 70 glitches and was often intermittent. The hardware was 16 years out of date. In March this year, another letter was written with reference to vacant posts and the fact that Kolkata was forcing controllers to work overtime.

Burnout is common in this profession, and not everyone wants to or can work in such a high-pressure environment where the stakes are so high. If you make a mistake in any other job, you get a reprimand. You do something wrong here in that tower, and lives are placed at risk. There is no such thing in ATC as a bad day at the office.

A couple of months ago, an Air India flight and a Nepal Airlines flight almost collided because, according to one report, ATC allowed a Nepal Airlines plane coming to Kathmandu from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and an Air India plane coming to Kathmandu from New Delhi to fly at the height of 19000 ft. and 15000 ft. at the same time. The two planes came close when the Air India aircraft was descending from 19,000 ft. The danger of collision was averted after the Nepal Airlines aircraft descended to 7,000 ft., and the proximity warning systems chirped in both aircraft. Three controllers were suspended for carelessness. 

It is not the most popular job in the world. There is still a shortage of such professionals in India, with 3,692 ATCOs on active duty against the required current strength of 4,211. This means that 519 more personnel are required to keep operations smooth. And more will be needed as new airports come up and regional interconnectivity is given traction. Unsurprisingly, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) has asked some retired controllers to come back as consultants. A call for 27 retired ATCOs for a one-year term for 10 airports, mainly for Delhi (DEL) and Mumbai (BOM), was made last March.

While the perks and benefits could be revised and made more attractive, there is also a need to examine the mechanics and upgrade equipment. The AAI has three training institutes. There is the Civil Aviation Training College at Prayagraj, the Hyderabad Training Centre and the National Institute of Aviation Training and Management at Gondia. At this moment, there seems to be no intent to open a more dedicated establishment, and though the ministry has confirmed the 541 vacant posts, there is no explanation for why they are not at full strength.

In 2019, Boeing and the AAI signed an agreement to jointly develop a comprehensive roadmap to allow AAI to improve airspace utilisation and maintain safe and efficient aircraft operations. Whereas the pandemic did slow things down, the agreement is still valid, and Boeing is on the job. According to AAI: “The roadmap aims to drive operational excellence and offer enhanced air traffic capacity for our flying public, and improved navigation, communication and surveillance for our users, making Indian skies seamless and safer to operate in.”

While progress has been registered in recent times, there are still some grey areas that need to be addressed. An investment in modernising the infrastructure and technology to make it state-of-the-art is on the cards. Upgrades across the board in communication systems, radar systems and faster data processing capabilities will only enhance safety and efficiency. For example, at a height of 335 feet, the new ATC tower at Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) is one of the world’s tallest. This gives controllers a better and wider visual appreciation. In comparison, the towers in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru measure 84 metres, 75 metres and 65 metres, respectively.

At the same time as recruitment and physical upgrades, what must be made commensurate with hi-tech equipment is the teaching infrastructure during training. India learnt much too late, and to its detriment, that training fighter jet pilots on aircraft that were not compatible was dangerous. The air force invested in fourth-generation trainers much later in the game and is now making its indigenous ‘HTT-40’ variant basic trainer aircraft. This fully aerobatic tandem-seat turbo trainer has an air-conditioned cockpit, modern avionics and hot refuelling capabilities.

It makes sense to make sure that the gap between the training systems and reality is kept narrow. If it is too wide, it leads to operational inefficiencies and safety concerns. By the same token, it must also be seen whether the protocols of the course need revamping. They should also be updated in the training programme, and that skill includes proficiency in the global communication language, which is English and having that innate talent to make decisions on the spot. This is something that you either have, or you don’t have.

The question that needs to be asked is very simple: do we have limited automation and integration of such systems? Do all our ATC’s function on radar data processing, the use of electronic flight strips and other such support tools? It would also be necessary to strengthen and align the regulatory framework with international standards.

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence


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