One of the busiest airports in the country, the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA), works with just 225 Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs).
This number is half of the sanctioned 450 posts for the airport, according to officials from Airports Authority of India (AAI).
The ATC ‘ground control’ handles up to 50 take-offs and landings an hour, apart from tracking flights from from Juhu airport and INS Shikra, the naval helicopter base in Colaba. The country’s tallest ATC ‘ground control’ tower, at 83.8 metres, has six to seven ATCOs at a time.
The Mumbai airport came last on flight punctuality, across four private operators-run Metro airports in Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore in February, according to a recent report by the Directorate General of Civil
“One mistake and we may have personally ruined 200 lives. But we try hard not to think about that. In fact, we don’t have the time to think about anything but ensuring no two flights ever come close,” said an ATCO, who did not wish to be named. He is among the seven male ATCOs at the ATC in Santacruz. “The pilot takes care of 200 lives in a day and is guided by us all the time, for us, it’s 4,000 lives in our hands every second.”
Among the 225, there are just 15 women ATCOs, most of them handle Oceanic Control and Area Control, tracking flights beyond the immediate airfield and in touch with neighbouring national and international ATCs such as Muscat, Pakistan, Seychelles, Yemen, Maldives, the Philippines and Mauritius. Lack of a women’s rest room at the year-old ATC tower is the reason for the absence of any women ATCOs at ‘ground control’.
Even with crossed runways and heavy traffic at Mumbai airport at night with limited visibility, the ‘ground control’ is the easiest of the air traffic control sections. The tougher ones are the Area control and Oceanic control sections of the ATC, operating from Sahar. Here, ATCOs stare at bigger screens with 50 moving dots and lots of crossing lines indicating crossing over traffic with a 100 nautical mile-large slice of sky above the Arabian Sea solely under an individual’s control.
Stress in these sections is higher as the the oceanic screen is a ‘synthetic’ picture, not actual locations but estimates based on the 30-minute updates. In comparison, ground controllers have real-time pictures on their screens and the flights on the runway are visible to them.
“Taking split-second decisions while someone is constantly speaking into your ears and constantly reminding yourself to stay fully alert even at 3 am is not easy,” admits Nutan Bhavekar, another ATCO.
The recent Germanwings crash in the French Alps highlighted the need for regular mental health check-ups for pilots. However, such check-ups happen once in two years for younger ATCOs at Mumbai airport and once a year after the ATCO turns 40, according to a senior ATC official, who did not wish to be named.
AAI officials said the process of recruiting more ATCOs was under way. “It takes almost six months to train an ATCO. Initially, while only electronics engineers were selected, now computer science engineers are also allowed to apply for the post,” an official said. “Recruitment is done from Delhi and we have been writing to them,” he added.