Air Traffic Management

It’s boom time for India’s aviation sector, but that’s hardly cause for cheer if you’re an air traffic controller (ATC). Their shortage has been pegged at 600 and it’s only set to get worse with the explosion in air traffic. This, in a profession where one wrong move, one momentary lapse can send numerous lives downward in a spiral of death.

The country has 1,500 ATCs, the requirements is for 2,100. The Roy Paul Committee, which looked into air traffic management in 2005, reported over 200 ATC vacancies. Three years later, the gap has widened three times.

Air traffic in India is hardly one-tenth what it is in developed nations. And yet, we still don’t have the infrastructure and personnel to keep pace with development.

The pressure on ATCs is immense. Mumbai and Delhi handle about 720 and 700 flight movements daily, up from 500 and 450 three years back. And if the horizontal distance between planes is reduced from some five nautical miles to three as has been proposed, the pressure would increase.

ATCs handle three areas: Radar, Tower and en route. Radar is the toughest; it takes over three years to become a controller here. And though there have been recruitment, it hasn’t made much of dent. The basic qualification for an ATC is B.Tech (telecom/electronics/radio engineering) or MSc in electronics. The training at the Civil Aviation Training College, Allahabad, lasts six months. It has 12 simulators, each of which can train only 10 people at a time. So, in a year only around 300 can be trained. But the short fall is 600. The college is also short of instructors. No good controller wants to become one as they have to slave it out, what with refresher courses, general duties etc. Also there’s a general shortfall of engineers as many prefer MNCs. Some of the applicants can’t even speak proper English. Transfers too are skewed. Sometimes, radar controllers are sent to stations which don’t even have radars.

As a solution the eligibility criteria can be changed. You don’t need engineers when any articulate bright science graduate would do. There is move to recruit such people, as done in European countries. Also, dedicated instructors are a must. There are plans for another academy in Hyderabad.

Recruitment is through ads. That takes time. Even after training, it takes about two years to acquire minimum skills. But it’s important and quality cannot be compromised. The training used to be for a year earlier now it is reduced to six months.

Another solution is instead of advertising and formal recruitment campus recruitment can be quicker. That’s on the cards now.

Automation is lacking in most airports. Secondary Surveillance Radars, which identify flight numbers and altitude, are available only in big cities. Pilots also ask why the Air Traffic Flow Management system hasn’t been implemented. Here, a Central Flow Management Unit balances the number of flights with available ATC capacity and helps prevent congestion. With each airline burning some 10 hours of fuel daily due to congestion, this is the need of the hour.

Thermal printers, which give details of a flight’s progress, to aren’t available at all airports. In some places, ATCs calculate manually. Also, radars have been installed only in about 12 airports.

Now there is a move to reduce verbal communication between pilots and ATCs (which can be misinterpreted) by laying down instructions on Computers. Also, Indian air space recently divided into four Flight information Regions, will be reduced to two (Delhi. Mumbai). Often, a pilot entering a new FIR has no information of congestion there. The new FIRs will handle the entire load of the country. These solutions will take a year to be implemented.