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In the air traffic control tower: 'Every hour is different'

Samantha David climbs into the control tower in Limoges to discover all about the role of an air traffic controller in France

16 December 2020
From the controllers’ desks in the tower, they can see all the action on the runways, as well as some of the aircraft in the sky.
By Samantha David

Most people’s experience of air traffic control is hearing something vague about it when a flight is delayed or cancelled.

Some people even wonder whether it is needed at all, especially in sleepy, provincial airports with only a few flights a day.

The view from the control tower is different

Through the shaded glass, controllers direct cargo and military aircraft, local police helicopters, private planes, drones, gliders, parachutists, aerobatic teams and student pilots, all of whom could be using the same airport.

Without someone having an overall picture of who is flying where, accidents would be all too frequent.

“Here in Limoges we’re practically back to the same number of flight movements per day as before Covid,” said Christophe Rougier, head of air traffic at the airport, when Connexion visited in October.

“In Toulouse and Bordeaux, they are still operating at about 50% but we are at 85-90%, which is partly because we have so many light aircraft here.”

From the controllers’ desks in the tower, they can see all the action on the runways, as well as some of the aircraft in the sky. The screens in front of them show the movements of all the aircraft, not just around the airport but in the entire region.

Unlike aircraft flying inside controlled zones, which must identify themselves and request permission to enter the zone, aircraft flying outside controlled zones are not obliged to identify themselves.

Every time an aircraft is identified, a strip of paper is marked up with all the details of the flight, including type of aircraft, originating airfield and destination

The controller gives the pilot information about weather – approaching thunderstorms or high winds, for example – other aircraft’s movements and hazards, such as military manoeuvres or aerobatic displays.

They also authorise aircraft in controlled areas to taxi, manoeuvre, land and take off. Once the aircraft has either landed or left the zone, the slip of paper is archived.

Flights can be VFR (Visual Flight Rules, meaning the pilot can see the ground at all times) or IFR (Instrument Flight Rules, meaning the pilot flying the plane is relying purely on the plane’s instruments to know where they are going).

“At Limoges, about 60% of flights are light aircraft, and the military use the airport frequently. In 2019, we logged about 50,000 VFR movements (takeoffs, landings and transits) and about 1,500 IFR movements.”

It’s a stressful job as mistakes could be fatal but for anyone interested in aviation, it’s also a great place to work, said Mr Rougier. 

'Every day is different, every hour is different, it truly is never routine'

"We’re trained to deal with technical faults and breakdowns (most of which are minor) and emergency landings and it’s satisfying to help obtain a good outcome. It’s a nice working atmosphere too.”

Controllers work 10-hour shifts, working a maximum of three consecutive days, and for only four hours at a time without a break.

The most serious accident at Limoges airport was in 2008 when a Boeing 737 operated by Ryanair skidded into the grass at the end of the runway. No one was hurt and the aircraft sustained only minor damage.

All French air traffic controllers train at the National School of Civil Aviation (ENAC) in Toulouse for three years, splitting their time between theory and practical study.

Air traffic control
The screens show the movements of all the aircraft, not just around the airport but in the entire region

“I chose the profession a bit by chance because I passed the entrance exams,” said Mr Rougier.

Once you qualify, you are guaranteed a job but you cannot choose where. You have to take one of the options you are given and then, if you want to move, you apply for a “mutation” (internal transfer).

Once qualified, he was given the choice between Roissy, Limoges and Corsica, and chose Limoges because he is originally from Corrèze and wanted to stay close to his family.

“To sit the competitive entrance exam to get into ENAC you need a BacS+2; most people have two years of prépa or a diploma in science or engineering. You need to be strong at maths and physics and you also need good French and English because you have to be able to do the job in both languages, switching constantly from one to the other.”

A favourite part of the training for him was learning to fly a plane.

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“In order that all controllers have been on the other side of the radio, so to speak, and know the stresses that can affect pilots, they all take an intensive course aimed at passing their private pilot’s licence. I still fly light aircraft as a leisure activity.”

There are about 4,500 controllers in France, 40% of whom are women, and they are normally paid from the taxes levied on commercial aircraft transiting through French airspace and airport taxes, which means that at the moment the government is having to pay them from other sources.

Air traffic controllers have been on strike over changes to the pension system. They have also called strike action over recruitment, saying the government needs to train more staff.

Currently, the aviation industry is one of those hardest hit by the Covid- 19 crisis 

Mr Rougier is reluctant to speculate about the future. “We have to wait and see,” he says simply.

Air France has been more forthright, announcing losses of €1.55billion in the first quarter of 2020, and €1.3billion in the second. It expects to end the year €2.9billion in the red.

The hard-hit industry has been slow to pick up due to border closures and quarantine regulations, making only 60% of its revised sales target in August.

The lucrative business travel market has picked up even more slowly than leisure travel.

In common with all other airlines, Air France is shedding jobs – 7,580 in its case – and restructuring to slash operating costs, including a 40% cut in domestic traffic.

The French government has promised to make €7billion available to help keep the national carrier afloat.

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