Grounded rulers of the sky

Inside the tight schedule of air traffic controllers at Tokyo's busy Haneda Airport

by Raju Thakrar

His sharp, calm gaze follows yet another aircraft swooping down from the cloudless sky, its tires screeching in clouds of blue smoke as it returns to Earth on Haneda’s concrete runway. One more flight successfully completed, he thinks — and now the next.

Despite being responsible for thousands of lives every day, he emanates a cool, poised and professional demeanor.

Though his job may be devoid of incident or mishap for 99.99 percent of the time, it’s that 0.01 percent that he’s really there for — when the slightest slip in concentration will result in a tragedy making headlines around the world, with hundreds of people being incinerated or ripped to bits.

Pilots may be at the controls of the planes that daily transport millions of people across countries, continents and time zones, but it is the air traffic controllers (ATCs) who are the true “kings of the sky” as they successfully manage hundreds of flights, day in and day out, through their takeoffs, landings and journeys in between.

Nowhere in Japan is the pressure on an ATC as intense as at Haneda Airport, which is less than 30 minutes by train from central Tokyo. With 65.8 million passengers passing through in 2006, Haneda is not only Japan’s busiest airport but the world’s fourth-busiest after London’s Heathrow Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

To find out what exactly the 130 ATCs at Haneda do, and how they cope with the pressures of the job, I managed to negotiate myself into the control tower where they work — access that is, apparently, a rare privilege.

Not a cloud was in the sky when, a little while back, I hopped onto the monorail train from downtown Hamamatsucho Station to Haneda Airport. About halfway through the 25-minute journey, the airport’s extensive acreage came into view, dominated by the 77-meter-high control tower I was heading for.

The tower rises from a building a few minutes’ walk from the main terminal building, but ascending it has deliberately been made difficult. After taking an elevator from ground level, you next have to walk down a corridor, up some stairs, along another corridor and then up another flight of stairs. Nowhere are there any signs directing you to the control tower. Obviously, this mystery tour is all in the name of security.

Finally — having left my imaginary AK-47, plastic explosives and stun grenades on a window ledge I passed — I climbed breathlessly to the top of the tower. From there, the 360-degree panorama made up for it all. To the north, central Tokyo’s skyscrapers filled the skyline, while to the southeast I could make out Yokohama’s Landmark Tower rising 296 meters into the sky. Then, to the west, what appeared to be a mere blip on the landscape turned out to be no less than iconic, 3,776-meter Mount Fuji.

The 10 ATCs I encountered in their control center atop the tower were either standing around gazing at the sky or sitting at their keyboards and screens gazing into the troposphere — that part of the high atmosphere planes fly in — while occasionally breaking the silence with “call signals” such as “All Nippon 3-3,” “Japan Air 1-2-1-5″ or “Korean Air 8-1-5″ through their headsets.

Just then, an incoming airliner from Hokkaido was starting its final approach to the runway, followed closely by a line of others from here and there and then some. In total, I counted five planes forming a descending line from about 10 km away heading to their landings in front of us.

Taking a moment’s break, one of the young ATCs, probably in her early 20s, turned to a female colleague beside her and said something that made both of them laugh. Under so much pressure, you wouldn’t think they’d have the time to exchange jokes.

“If I tried to maintain my concentration 100 percent of the time, I’d easily get tired,” said Kenko Shimizu, 42, who has been an ATC for 20 years. So, he said, sometimes they really need to break the tension, “while keeping an eye on the planes.”

From the time of each flight’s planning until it lands at its destination, every stage requires the attention of several different controllers, who seamlessly “hand off” the flight as it passes from one area of authority to the next.

Take, for example, a 747 jumbo jet about to take off from Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, bound for Haneda. The ATC in charge of ground control — a key operation overseeing taxiing for takeoff or returning to park at the terminal — will give the pilot permission to proceed to the runway designated for takeoff. Once there, the flight is handed off to the tower controller by way of a radio frequency change. After takeoff, but before the flight reaches the edge of his “airspace,” the tower controller hands it over to the departure controllers monitoring it on radar, who will in turn hand it over to the Fukuoka Area Control Center. (There are four ACCs to cover Japan’s entire airspace, the other three being in Sapporo [Hokkaido], Tokorozawa [north of Tokyo] and Naha [Okinawa].)

When the plane gets within 80 nautical miles (148 km) of Haneda, it is picked up by an ATC at the Tokyo Area Control Center in Tokorozawa. Finally, when the plane is 5 nautical miles (9 km) away from Haneda, it comes under the jurisdiction of the airport’s control tower, which will issue a clearance for its final approach and landing. After that, it’s back to a ground-control ATC to shepherd the aircraft safely to its final stop, where passengers disembark through their gates and go on with their lives blissfully unaware of the number of people involved in getting them to their chosen destination, or the pressures of responsibility for making sure it happened without incident.

On a typical day, about 1,000 planes land and take off from Haneda, which, when the schedule is tight, works out at one touching down every 2 minutes.

To cope with its increasingly large flow of traffic, a fourth runway is currently being built at Haneda, to the south of the airport located on the shore of Tokyo Bay. This is due to open in October 2010, when the already existing clamor for Haneda to handle more international flights is bound to intensify. Currently, with Tokyo’s other international airport at far-distant Narita striving to maintain its lucrative grip on international flights, only 15 percent of those from its Haneda rival are to or from foreign destinations — Seoul, Hong Kong and Shanghai primarily.

However, when Haneda’s fourth runway opens, the demands will surely intensify on its ATCs who will be staffing a new, 115-meter-high control tower overseeing a runway too far away from the current tower to be seen by the naked eye — a fact that demonstrates how the role of technology in an ATC’s job has its limits. But just because you are an ATC doesn’t mean that your eyesight is perfect. Many ATCs, including Shimizu, wear contact lenses. “I wanted to be a pilot from my childhood, but when I took the exam for the pilot-training school they said my eyesight was not good enough,” he said. “That’s why I decided to become an ATC.”

Vision of the 20/20 variety is not a major factor for ATCs working in the radar room located in the bowels of the control tower. The contrast in the ambience of the two rooms is stark: while the control room is bathed in natural light, the windowless radar room’s main illumination is from its row of 11 radar screens.

Peering over the shoulder of one of the ATCs whose eyes were fixed on a screen, I saw a kaleidoscopic maze of blinking blips, each representing a plane. Each triangular-shaped blip also came with a flight number, altitude, ground speed and aircraft type attached.

ATCs in the radar room are assigned an area to supervise, rather than a specific number of planes. However, if a supervisor feels that too many planes are flying in a certain area, he or she will divide the space with another ATC in the interests of safety.

When an ATC has worked one day in the control room, he or she will often be on the radar room roster the following day, and vice-versa. In both control centers, though, each eight-hour shift starts with a briefing on the tower’s current situation, weather forecasts and any other necessary updates. Although ATCs typically take 50-minute breaks every two or three hours on a rotating basis, Shimizu said that they sometimes don’t leave the room, but stay there to lend a hand if required. As a result, they actually end up working between 6 1/2 and 7 hours per shift.

That seemed to this observer like an awfully long time to have to maintain total concentration. Perhaps, I thought, that’s why there is an electrical massage chair in the room adjacent to the ATCs’ meeting room.

“We don’t have time to use it on our breaks,” Shimizu said with a wry smile. “But some people get a massage when their shift is over.”

Speaking of time — or the lack of it — ATCs must also contend with the fact that in terms of airlines’ tight operating schedules and the growing fuel-cost factor — they can never for a second bring about any unnecessary delay.

“If you leave too much time between planes, you end up with too much waste,” Shimizu said. “So getting the timing right means that planes can touch down earlier, which means at the end of the day that the passengers and everyone else involved will be happy.”

Considering all this, and with stress-induced nervous conditions becoming more commonplace in today’s high-pressured Japan, I thought that surely there were few places as taxing to work as in air traffic control at a busy airport.

“There’s no way you can do this job if you can’t cope with the stress,” said Shimizu. “I personally don’t really suffer from stress because I love planes. But when I finish work, I still like to unwind by listening to Japanese pop music or spending time with my kid.”

Shimizu was the first to admit, however, that people deal with stress in different ways. A case in point was Ryoichi Mikami, 30, who currently works at Haneda. Despite having 10 years’ experience under his belt, he admits that he is sensitive to stress.

“I wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure that comes with this job if I didn’t have a drink now and then,” he says. “The other way that I let off steam is by going to an onsen (hot-spring spa) once every couple of months. I find that a good soak works wonders.”

Composure when under the gun is just one of many characteristics assessed during entrance tests for the Aeronautical Safety College located close to Kansai International Airport in western Japan, where people are trained to become ATCs. Other factors determining whether or not they are accepted include their ability to stay motivated, their sense of responsibility and ability to cooperate with others — all essential attributes for ATCs working in the group-oriented environment of a control tower.

Despite the mental strength required of an ATC, however, the school only conducts a 15-minute oral exam with interviewees to determine this. Mysteriously — but apparently to prevent future candidates who might read this story to prep for the test — no one I met was prepared to tell me exactly what it involved.

Though the entrance exams might appear a little less than ultimately rigorous, the budding ATCs who graduate from the school — which takes a year for those with degrees and two years for others — are then only at the start line of their careers. From that point, they are sent to work in the field, where they are very closely monitored and have more tests and on-the-job training. In the case of Haneda, it typically takes about 2 1/2 years after they leave the school for an ATC to become fully qualified.

As Japan’s 97 national and international airports are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, ATCs are essentially civil servants, and so receive pay increases according to a seniority-based system. In practice — to the chagrin of some — this means they are generally paid less than salaried company employees with the same length of experience.

“I wish my salary was higher,” Shimizu said. “Even my wife, who works at an insurance company, gets paid more than me!”

But unlike your next year’s salary, in this job there are some things that simply can’t be predicted — like the seismic tremors that rock Japan’s archipelago from time to time.

Unfazed as ever, though, Shimizu explained that “it all depends on the scale of the earthquake. If it’s a small one, planes might be able to touch down and take off safely,” he said. “But if a major tremor occurs, we might have to direct planes to another airport before their fuel runs out.”

Similarly, as Japan is often battered by typhoons, weather is a crucial factor that ATCs (and aircrew) cannot ignore.

“Haneda has its own weatherperson on hand 24 hours a day,” Mikami explained. “But if the forecast predicts that a typhoon is approaching Tokyo, fewer planes are directed here — or none at all if it looks really bad.”

As fickle and unpredictable as the weather and earthquakes may be, however, they are as naught compared to the erratic behavior that humans are capable of.

Japan has had its share of hijackings. One of the most memorable in recent years occurred on July 23, 1999, when a 28-year-old flight-simulator fan commandeered an ANA 747 jumbo jet at knifepoint as it took off from Haneda bound for Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido and tried to force the pilot to fly under the 52-meter-high roadway of the Rainbow Bridge that spans Tokyo Bay. He was eventually overpowered by the crew members and the plane returned safely to Haneda, but only after the man fatally stabbed the pilot to death.

“I wasn’t in the control room that day,” said Shimizu. “But I saw it on TV.” He added that everybody in the tower that day must have been in a panic.

In tense, drama-filled situations like that, decisions must be made in an instant — decisions that could make the difference between life and death for hundreds of passengers.

“I used to have difficulty making a choice,” says Mikami. “But working as an ATC has sped up my ability to make decisions — even in everyday life.”

A longtime former air-traffic controller I spoke to recently observed: “There is a peculiar romance between pilots and controllers everywhere that is quite unique. We saw them but they almost never saw us. Their lives depended on our professionalism and our jobs depended on theirs. The pilots know what’s going on inside their aircraft, and they’re in charge there, but beyond that, we both know who had to be in charge.”

As a frequent flyer myself, it’s reassuring to hear these views and those of ATCs like Mikami and Shimizu who are so dedicated to doing a good job. However, I still can’t work out why anyone would want to put themselves under so much stress, and bear such a heavy responsibility for so little reward as an ATC.

“Being an ATC is an interesting job because I get to solve ‘puzzles,’ ” said Mikami. “And each and every day brings a whole new set of different puzzles.”