Ejo #81 – ATC 101: Stress

Air traffic control is one of the few things I know well enough to write about with any authority.  Turns out, it’s also one of the more popular topics I write about.  So, being the people pleaser that I am, I’ve decided to start a new series called ATC 101.  It will delve into the basics of the job, as well as my thoughts about various aspects of it.  Obviously I won’t be going into too much detail (coz shit can get technical and -believe it or not- quite boring), and most of what I’ll write about is most definitely going to consist solely of my opinion – meaning that it is in no way a definitive account of the job.  Just my two cents worth.

This month, spurred by a recent incident that occurred at Dubai International Airport, I’m going to write about stress and the air traffic controller.  Whenever I tell someone what I do they always respond with some variation of, “Wow, that’s such a stressful job”.  But is it actually stressful? What exactly is stress?  How is stress defined in this context?  If the question being asked is, “Am I constantly on edge with my heart racing and sweat beading on my forehead, from the time I clock on to the time I go home?” the answer is no.  But for some reason, the flying public’s perception of the job is that it’s super high pressure all the time.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Though if you were to read the ridiculous New York Times article that inspired the ridiculous movie “Pushing Tin” you could be forgiven for thinking that it was.

Taking away the fact that my current job is obviously less taxing than when I was an air traffic controller at an airport with more traffic (i.e. Melbourne), I’m still going to lead with the premise that the job itself, despite its reputation, is actually not stressful.  Yes, over the course of a day we handle billions of dollars worth of aircraft holding the lives of thousands of people.  But we are just one line of defence against an accident occurring.  There are safety systems in place – procedures, equipment, pilots, aircraft maintenance, emergency responders – the list goes on.  Sure, we can’t afford to make mistakes but a whole bunch of mistakes have to be made along the line before an accident happens.

There’s a theory about the cause of accidents put forward by researcher Professor James Reason famously known as the Swiss Cheese model of accident causation.  The theory posits that each line of defence against an accident is basically a piece of Swiss cheese.  Sure, it might have holes in it (and that’s OK, because there is no perfect resistance against errors) but when the holes of successive pieces of cheese line up, an accident occurs.  So I am a piece of cheese, and yes, my actions prevent an unknown number of accidents but that’s my job and that’s what I’m trained to do.  Just as the pilots are trained to do their job, and airport electricians are trained to do theirs etc. and collectively we make it a safe and efficient way to travel.

 

Reason Model

When the holes line up = bad.

 

Air traffic control, by its very nature, is a job defined by rules and procedures that MUST be adhered to.  And we all know that when you do the same thing, over and over and over and over again, it becomes monotonous.  So air traffic control can sometimes actually be a really dull job.  Even when you’re dealing with lots of traffic. But no-one ever says, “Ugh, that must be a really boring job!”

In my personal experience, there are three situations which have caused me stress at work.  The first is training. Training is stressful.  Yes, we learn the basics of ATC at the beginning but each new place we work has local instructions in addition to the regular rules.  New routes to learn, new procedures, new phraseology, new traffic patterns.  Training sucks.  Seriously, just ask any air traffic controller.

Something else that sucks is the annual competency check we have to do, to ensure that we are operating to the expected standard.  It consists of a written exam, the questions for which are mined from the reams of paperwork we are expected to memorise in order to do our job.  In addition, there is an oral examination (which is basically the same as the written exam, but just seems SO much harder) and then a two hour assessment in each position that you’re qualified to control in.  You might be the best ATC in the world, it does not matter.  No-one likes having another person sitting over their shoulder watching them work and taking notes.  No-one.  Decisions that you would make every day without blinking an eye suddenly become difficult.  You second-guess yourself.  It’s just awful.  But hey, standards have to be maintained and that’s just the nature of the job.  If you fail a check, you need to get re-trained in the necessary areas.  It’s a way of keeping everyone sharp.  So yeah, every October, when my check is rostered, you could say I find that to be a stressful situation.  And even though I know what I’m doing and feel very confident about my abilities, the relief is enormous every time I pass and it’s over for another year.

The third situation that I found stressful was actually one that isn’t necessarily associated with the job itself.  A couple of years after I qualified as an ATC, in late 2002, my father got sick with cancer.  He was sick for ten months, and during that time my work was actually a really great distraction from the depressing situation at home.  It was an escape.  But then, in September 2003 my father died and suddenly my world fell apart.  I tried to continue at work but I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t put on a headset and talk to pilots and still be safe.  I pulled myself from the roster.

One of the definitions of the word “stress” is being in a state of “mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.  My work has never caused that. But my father’s death was stressful.  And it caused me stress in the workplace.  Perhaps if I had a different kind of job I could have continued working.  But being an ATC, I couldn’t. You have to know your limits  and you have to know yourself. Maybe that constant self-scrutiny also contributes to latent stress. Who knows?

There is something, in my line of work, called CISM.  It stands for critical incident stress management.  And it refers to the education and support provided to air traffic controllers in order to help them deal with stressful situations.  Now, a stressful situation can be something that occurs outside of the workplace, like a loved one’s death.  But more often than not, CISM is provided in response to an incident that happens at work.  Like an accident.  Like earlier this month, when EK521 crashed on landing at Dubai International.  We don’t yet know the reason for the crash.  We don’t know which Swiss cheese holes lined up to cause the accident. We do know that the Airport Fire Service were the piece of cheese with no holes. If it wasn’t for their incredible response, the outcome could have been catastrophic.

The first I heard of the accident was when I arrived at work for an afternoon shift and was told to expect a busy shift because an aircraft had just crashed at Dubai.  My immediate response was to ask, “Oh shit, did everyone get out OK?” which is what most people would ask.  But my second instinct was to ask about the air traffic controller who was in charge of the flight, and ask if they were OK too. And that’s something that most people would not necessarily think about.  They wouldn’t think about the guy or girl who has responsibility for that tin can full of human beings. Or how it must feel to have that tin can impact with the earth – something that’s never supposed to happen.  But I did. Because I’m that guy or girl. And that aeroplane full of people is our responsibility. Even when there’s absolutely nothing we could have done to prevent it.  We are the ones talking to the pilot.  That aircraft was in our jurisdiction.  We had “control” – it’s in the fucking job title.

So I guess, that’s where the most stress lies.  In the possibility that something that happens safely every day thousands and thousands of times (aeroplanes taking off, and aeroplanes landing) might, one day, go wrong.  But here’s the thing.  As air traffic controllers, we simply cannot think about that.  We can’t worry about the holes lining up.  Because if we did, we’d be paralysed.  We just have to get on with the job of trying to keep the holes in our cheese as small and as few in number as possible.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day.  We studied ATC together, sixteen years ago.  She’s one of the most experienced, and one of the best, controllers I know.  But she’s no longer working traffic.  She is now a manager in the Safety department – an office job.  When I mentioned to her that I was feeling a little under the weather that day for my morning shift she said she was really pleased not to have to deal with the stress of turning up to work every day at 100% capacity. Even though she had no idea I was writing this ejo, she said that she was a lot less stressed now that she was no longer an air traffic controller. She also said that she never would have thought of herself as stressed when she was doing the job. She only realised it after she switched to office work

And therein, I suppose, lies the crux of what we do.  We deal with stress, with stressful situations, all the time.  But we don’t consider it stressful.  We can’t afford to. The stress is there – but we raise our threshold in order to cope with it.  We toughen our skins, and we harden the fuck up. And we pay the price for that. Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, sterility (yup, sterility), divorce and obesity. And you know what? There’s nothing else we’d rather do. But more than that, we’re the only ones who can do it.

 

2 comments

  1. Great writing Chryss. Reminds me of Neil Armstrong, who wasn’t the best pilot they conaidered, but was hired for his low stress levels. If you’ve seen the moon landing footage from inside the cockpit, you can hear the number of seconds of fuel remaining being counted down while they’re still calmly looking for a flat place to land. They ended up landing with less than 30 seconds of fuel left if memory serves.

    The way I think of it is that people who do highly stressful jobs are probably very low-stress people. So they can handle the stress, or rather they don’t respond to potentially stressful situations with stress. It might be the most stressful job in the world, but isn’t stressful to those doing it because only those who don’t find it stressful CAN do it.

    1. Thanks Rob, I think that hits the nail on the head. It wasn’t til I started writing this post that I realised that perhaps it actually is stressful – and would be too much for most people. But that we get selected because we can handle it. I’ve always said that you don’t have to be smart to do this job, you just have to be wired a certain way, and I guess this theory backs that up.
      x

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