Air Traffic Control

Ejo #13 – My Life As An Air Traffic Controller at Al Maktoum International Airport and Introducing You To Dangerous Doug

OK, I’ve had writer’s block.  To be honest, I’ve never really been able to write very easily when I’m employed as an Air Traffic Controller.  Perhaps that’s just an excuse, or maybe it has something to do with how I need to use the different sides of my brain.  Let’s go with the latter (though we all know it’s almost definitely the former).  There’s nothing like a bit of self-denial to get the ball rolling anyway.  But at least it’s rolling.

So, most of you know that I’m employed as an ATC at Al Maktoum International, the new airport in Dubai.  Some of you are aware that the airport has had a most unillustrious beginning.  Meaning that so far there’s been virtually no air traffic.  Before the airport actually opened we were warned of (and dismayed at the prospect of dealing with) only 60 movements a day.  And no, a movement (in this case anyway) has nothing to do with going to the toilet.  It refers to the number of times an aircraft uses the runway.  So an aircraft that lands at midday and then takes off two hours later counts as two movements.  So 60 is not very many considering that when I left Melbourne Tower we were handling 500-600 a day.  And it’s absolute peanuts compared to what David handles at Dubai International Airport – over 900 a day and creeping towards a grand.

So sure, the thought of 60 movements a day was somewhat disheartening.  But the reality has eventuated as even more depressing.  Honestly, the most movements I’ve ‘controlled’ in a single shift has been about eight.  Which is why (you may have noticed) I’ve not once referred to myself as ‘working’ as an ATC but rather as being ’employed’ as one.  There’s a vast difference.

Still, I am employed.  And the fact is that one day Al Maktoum International is slated to be the largest airport in the world (of course!).  It will have five parallel runways and be capable of processing 160,000,000 passengers a year.  That’s a lot.  But really, that reality is a long way off, and so I have been confronted with the question of, “What should I do with my time?”.  I started off whiling the hours at work away by playing solitaire on the computer.  Not very productive and it got very boring, very quickly.  So I decided to do a little bit of self-education (and make a bit of money hopefully) by studying investing.  You know, so that I could be more informed about dabbling in the stockmarket.  Well, what I learned is that I shouldn’t dabble in the stockmarket.  I also managed to learn a few other valuable bits of info though; enough to actually feel comfortable investing in equities for the first time in my life.  I am now the proud owner of a (very) small percentage of a few banks and a mining company.  Thrilling.  Now I just have to hold onto the shares that I’ve bought and in about 30 years I’ll have made my fortune.  But that still doesn’t answer my question of what to do in the meantime???

I decided, dear friends, that rather than do a course by correspondence (which is an idea I seriously flirted with), what I would do is snuggle up to my other dear old friends, words.  And I would, once more, make a serious attempt at writing something fit for publication.  So now, what I have is an idea to work on, plenty of opportunity (with the added bonus of being paid to do it), the equipment (a desk has finally arrived in the tower break room), a New Year’s Resolution to have the first draft of a book finished by the end of 2011, and absolutely NO MORE EXCUSES.

Wish me luck (again) please.

Oh, before I bid you all adieu, I have been reminded that in my last ejo I promised you all a funny story.  OK then, here it is:

I work with a wonderfully weird (and simply lovely) guy called Doug.  I want you all to get acquainted with Doug because he is the protagonist at the centre of countless strange and bizarre experiences and stories, which I would like to share with you over time.

Anyway, Doug is a never-married (but twice-engaged) gentleman in his fifties, though he doesn’t look that old as he takes very good care of himself.  Saying that though, I must also point out that Doug has absolutely no ego whatsoever.  He’ll always be the first to laugh at himself in any situation (and trust me, there are many, many situations).  I want to be as frank as possible here: the man is a poo magnet.  If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong when Doug is around, and furthermore it will go wrong in spectacular fashion.

To wit:  One day, several years ago, Doug was in his apartment (in Sharjah, a UAE emirate) making a late night cheese and tomato sauce sandwich (gross, right?).  Anyway, while making his midnight snack he was watching a show on TV, something related to surgery (possibly Dr. 90210 – I don’t really know).  Now, I’m not sure if Doug already knew that he had a tendency to faint at the sight of blood, or if it was a trait that he discovered that very night.  Suffice to say, he saw some blood on the TV show and fainted at the sight of it, and in doing so he dropped the knife to the kitchen floor.  Also on his way down, he banged his head on the kitchen bench knocking himself out cold for the next fifteen minutes.

What happened in that fifteen minutes reads like some kind of screwball comedy but I promise you all of it is true.  His downstairs neighbour (who’d been taking a bath when she heard the thump as he hit the floor like a sack of spuds), jumped out of the bath, into a robe and ran upstairs to see what the matter was.  She knocked frantically on the door and after getting no response she flung the door open, only to find Doug on the floor in the kitchen, unconscious, with blood pouring out of the wound in his head where he’d struck it on the bench.  She immediately rang for an ambulance, which turned up a short time later with a couple of police officers in tow.

The cops took one look at the scene: an apparently dead man on the floor with blood gushing out of his head, a red spattered butcher’s knife flung across the kitchen floor and a badly shaken, half naked, female neighbour in hysterics.  They quickly concluded the obvious.  The neighbour had murdered Doug.  She was promptly arrested.

Then, to shake things up a bit, Doug started regaining consciousness and protesting his neighbour’s innocence.  This, contrary to what you might imagine, did not actually help things.  What it did was lead the cops to wonder why this lady had tried (albeit failing in the attempt) to kill Doug and they came up with the only logical solution.  He must have tried to rape her.  It makes sense.  She was scantily clad, he tried to rape her, she defended herself by stabbing him in the head with a knife.  The case was all wrapped up.  And so, they arrested him too.

The two of them were then taken to the police station to be booked with their respective charges amid increasingly hysterical declarations of innocence that were only heeded once a senior police officer took the time to examine the knife more closely and discovered that the red stuff was indeed just tomato sauce and not Doug’s blood after all.  Both were let off with a warning (oh yes!): they should not have been alone in the house together as they were neither married nor related by blood.

Sharjah Police: 1, Doug: 0.

Next time I’ll relate how Doug managed to even-steven the score.  Til then, I wish you all a fabulous Xmas and I hope 2011 brings you all abundant joy, health and happiness.



PS David says hi!

Ejo #6 – Women and Muslims in Dubai (and Not Working As An Air Traffic Controller)

I probably haven’t made it very clear to all of you that I’m not actually working at the moment. Unless of course you count sweeping, dusting, cooking and cleaning (and of course ejo writing) as work. Which in fact, actually is rather hard work. A few times people have asked me whether I’m even able to work here. Being a woman and all. And I understand why they ask because there is this stereotype of the Middle East being a place where Islam represses women. I don’t know about the other Middle Eastern countries but here in the UAE I have not experienced, or even observed, any kind of repression of women. They are able to drive cars, climb the corporate ladder, hold any job they are qualified for and pretty well do anything that men are permitted to do. They actually get treated with a lot more respect than I’ve seen elsewhere. In fact women receive preferential treatment to men in several situations.


One of these is ‘Women Only’ queues. Several times I’ve been waiting in a queue with David and some official has approached us and told us to go to the Women’s Only queue which invariably is about 1/10 as long. Yeeeehaaaaaa!! When we recently went to the Road & Traffic Authority to finalise our UAE licenses I was again ushered to the Women’s Only line which was in fact titled, “Women and Other People With Special Needs”!! Yep, that’s me alright!! I still feel slightly uncomfortable though going directly to the front of a queue when there are 60 men ahead of me who have been waiting for hours to be seen. So unlike several other women I’ve observed (and I’m not bagging them in the least) I don’t go straight to the front. I always wait until I am directed there. And I always am. I think it’s a sign of respect for women’s ‘modesty’ to not have them mingling with the men. Women’s modesty being a huge tenet of the Islamic faith, which is why they wear the black abayas (robes).


Emiratis also have a special fast-track queue so the people that always get shafted are the blue collar expat workers who cannot afford to bring their wives to live with them in Dubai. That just happens to be the majority of the population. And everything, from getting a driver’s license, to the four or five stages of applying for residency, to having the compulsory health checks involves hours and hours of waiting around with a ticket in your hand waiting for your number to get called. My permanent residency was just finalised about a week ago (religion: Christian (they don’t recognise Atheism), profession: Housewife) and if I never have to pull another queue ticket out of a machine again it will be too soon.


We spent three months essentially waiting in queues every time David had a day off. And I couldn’t do it by myself when he was at work because I was just here on a visitor’s visa. That’s worthless when dealing with all the government departments. So we waited in queues, filled in forms, had them translated into Arabic (this is compulsory and you get charged for it), processed the forms, ran from department to department (sometimes all the way across town), had blood tests and chest x-rays, waited days for the results, picked up the results, filled in more forms, blah blah blah!!!!


In the end we were thrilled to discover that the official who had processed the revision of my visitor’s visa to a temporary residency visa had failed to stamp my passport with the correct stamp. So I was in fact living here illegally for 31 days. Cough up a 3000dhs fine, thank you very much. For a friggin’ stamp!! You’ve gotta laugh!!


We’re hoping that David’s employer reimburses him for it, as they have promised to pay all costs associated with gaining residency visas for the whole family. But lately there have been grumblings of overspending on Air Traffic Controllers in general. When you consider that they’ve recruited forty ATCs in the last six months that’s quite a lot of cash. Not only do they pay salaries but they also pay for the whole family to be flown here, temporary accommodation, one month’s car hire, an entire year’s rent in advance (and the exorbitant school fees where applicable), and to process the visas. That is a lot, a lot of cash!!


David and I moved here with the expectation/hope that I would be offered work after David had fully qualified and settled into the job. Actually our move here was predicated on that fact. They’d been hinting that I would probably begin work at the new 6 runway Al Maktoum airport in Jebel Ali which was expected to be completed by January of this year. Last week I had a meeting with the Big Boss of airport services in Dubai to get some idea of what opportunities existed and when I could expect to start. First thing he said to me was, “Bad Timing”. Second thing he said was, “We’re not hiring any more controllers for the foreseeable future”. Third thing, “Due to the economic crisis, the completion date for Al Maktoum airport has been pushed back to June. Of next year!!” Talk about pulling the rug out from under my feet. I’m just grateful that David still has a job. Financially we can afford to live on one income. Professionally I had been expecting to have 2-3 months off work before returning to the job. Not 2 years!! I don’t know if I want to go that long without working. I don’t even know if I can go that long and still be employable as an ATC. So my limited options are clear. I can stay in Dubai and either find some other work or perhaps study, and hope that the recruitment situation in ATC changes sooner rather than later. Or, I could return to Australia and hope that my previous employer would take me back. This latter option is, professionally, the desirable one. Personally though it is untenable as David has to remain here in Dubai. If he was to break his contract now we would have to pay back that huge amount of money that Serco paid to set us up here and right now we really can’t afford that.


So, for the moment (and boy, this can change at any time) I am staying here. I have to wrestle with the feelings I have that my identity is wrapped up in my being an Air Traffic Controller and somehow I have to find something else to BE. My greatest fear is that if I am not an ATC, I am nothing. I can’t DO anything else. I am still grappling with this fear and trying to overcome it. Deep down I know that I am, and always have been, more than just my job. I’ve just allowed my pride in what I do to help shape and define me. So really, in a way, this ‘disaster’ is perhaps just an opportunity for me to try and discover other things about myself. Other skills, other ambitions and goals. As they say, when one door closes, another door opens. And I am not powerless. I am choosing this path. If I wanted to pursue my ATC career I could probably do so back in Australia. But right now I am choosing my husband, I am choosing an exciting and interesting life abroad and I am choosing to make the world my oyster.


Anyone who has ever spent some time with me and knows me at all, knows that I love to write. Words have always been my passion and since the age of about ten I’ve harboured a strong (unkillable) desire to one day ‘be a writer’. This must be my chance. If I don’t take this opportunity now to pursue this dream, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance again. So that’s what I’ll be. A writer. Who knows, I may even get something published (or made into a feature film!!). So yes, I feel a bit down at my lack of job prospects as an ATC in Dubai but I am also very excited at finally having the time and ability to focus on another passion. I’m extremely lucky that David is able and willing to support me in my endeavours and that we can even afford to live on one salary (we’ve gone from being DINKs to being SINKs – ouch!!). I have one reason to be sad but many, many reasons to be happy. Of course if any of you wants to write to me to tell me how much you love me and how much faith you have in me, well, that’d be pretty nice too!! Until next time.