A peek in the life of... An air traffic controller


Air traffic career: Fran Slater

Every day more than 7,500 flights crowd into British skies. It's the job of air traffic controllers to make sure they travel safely.

Fran Slater, 35, has been an air traffic controller for ten years. She has two sons, Christopher, seven, and Matthew, two, and is married to David, 35, also an air traffic controller. She lives in Whiteley, near Southampton. She says:

Last year, we landed 2.2 million flights safely, but people only ever hear a lot about about the rare cases when things go wrong, which can be frustrating. In fact, I am fortunate that no flight has ever crashed when I have been on duty.

My seven-year-old, Christopher, loves boasting about what Mummy does. 'She tells pilots what to do,' he says.

'And sits in a big room with lots of screens with dots on them.' I think he imagines it's all a bit like a big computer game, and in a way it is.

It's my job to make sure that planes fly safely over the patch of air stretching from Southampton to Dover by looking at a screen with tiny asterisks moving around on it  -  each representing a plane carrying up to 500 people.

My area includes Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and City Airport which makes it one of the busiest and most complicated air spaces in the world.

At any given moment I could be directing 20 planes, making sure they cross each other without colliding.

So people find it surprising when I say I don't find it stressful; I think it's fun. It's like a huge puzzle that you have to fix, and when you do it's most satisfying.

You go home at the end of your shift feeling a real high.

It was my husband who suggested my job. We met at Bangor University, where I was doing maths.

I'd been planning to be a teacher, but David, who was mad about aviation, thought I'd have the right temperament to be an air traffic controller. I'm logical, outgoing, decisive and I like to be in control  -  in other words, I'm a nag. Oh, and I'm good at parking.

I'm based in Swanwick, which is one of the national air traffic control centres, and am what's known as an Area Controller.

While an Approach Controller controls the immediate area around the airport and manages flights as they land and take off, I pick up the flights after that, managing air space up to 17,000ft, handing over to someone else after that.

About 50 of us work in five-hour shifts  -  with breaks every hour-and-a-half  -  in a massive room.

I would typically oversee 200 flights a day  -  20 at any given minute. It's very calm.

It can be quite strange taking a flight on holiday because you know where the pilot is going when he hangs a right or takes a dip. But I never worry about safety; I know we're in the hands of professionals.

The only thing I worry about is keeping my two-year-old quiet.


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