Airways is on the hunt for candidates to do a job that just 2 per cent of the global population are wired to do – air traffic control.
A graduate pay package for an air traffic controller starts at $95,000 or so, with the potential to earn up to $180,000 with experience.
About 24 per cent of New Zealand air traffic controllers are female, a higher proportion than in other roles in the aviation industry. Just 6 per cent of pilots in New Zealand are women.
Airways, the country’s only air traffic service provider, says the average age of a controller is 44, and many have backgrounds in the Air Force or elsewhere in aviation.
A shift for an air traffic controller is typically seven-and-a-half hours, with frequent breaks. Operations cover 24 hours and night shifts are common.
Air traffic controllers work in both airport control towers and the radar centre in Christchurch. The tower controllers manage aircraft landing and taking off, while those in the radar centre manage aircraft wherever they may be around the country.
To become an air traffic controller, an applicant needs to be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, pass a class three medical with the Civil Aviation Authority and be of good character with no convictions.
The first stage of testing is a series of aptitude tests which assess candidates on their attention to detail, spatial reasoning and problem solving, then a personality assessment and interviews. There’s also the requirement to complete a pre-employment drug and alcohol test and pass a Ministry of Justice criminal records check.
“We’re looking for people who are conscientious and detail-oriented, individuals who are comfortable working under pressure, have the ability to be calm under pressure – and display calmness, even if their feet may be paddling hard under the water,” says Judy McGrody, Airways’ manager of talent, acquisition and retention.
On average, the organisation gets 600-700 applications a year.
“Of the 600 to 700 that will apply, we’d look to have about 24 people to the assessment centre and then 12 into training,” McGrody says.
New Zealand has 350 people working in air traffic services, and the number of controllers needed is climbing, she says.
“The nature of air traffic control is really evolving and it’s one of the professions where technology is constantly having an impact. There will always be a need for air traffic controllers but the nature of how they do it, where they do it and how many do it is evolving quite quickly.”
McGrody says air traffic services is an industry in which workers often stay for the majority of their career, with the typical length of service around 20 years.
A common career path for a controller is to start off in a regional tower, then decide whether to go down the radar centre route or to a tower in a busier town.
At full capacity, the radar centre has 24 people working, and around seven as a bare minimum. Towers have three or four staff working at any given time.
Airways’ general manager of air traffic services, Tim Boyle, says the company is transforming how it operates, following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
“In Auckland on that day, it was a lovely sunny day, there was nothing wrong with the runway, there was nothing wrong with the airport, but nobody could fly because we were reliant on the single building in Christchurch,” Boyle says.
Airways is now building a secondary radar centre in Auckland, identical to the new Christchurch centre which is under development and scheduled to be in use from July 2020.
“We’re building a far more resilient system,” Boyle says.
“What we want to move towards is a more instantaneous ‘we’ve lost one centre, carry on’ [type of structure], so no matter what, we can provide some service.”
The plan is to have most operations run out of Christchurch but with the Auckland radar centre as a backup, with controllers spread between them.
“At the moment we’re very Christchurch-centric, we actually feel we’re cutting out a large portion of the job market,” says Boyle. “By growing our presence in Auckland, in the future, we’ll offer more opportunities to employ people from Auckland.”
There are 17 air traffic control towers spread throughout the country.
What it’s like to be an air traffic controller
Scott Herbert, a veteran air traffic controller based in Christchurch, considers his job the best in the world.
“I’ve been controlling for 25 years and it’s just a buzz going to work knowing that every day is going to be different. The weather might change, you might have a busy period, a really quiet period – anything could happen,” says Herbert.
“And you get paid to look out the window at a cool view depending on where you are in the country.”
Herbert became an air traffic controller straight out of school. He’s always had an interest in aviation and previously held a pilot’s licence.
At 18 he went through training which lasted two-and-a-half years. Today, to get an air traffic licence trainees have to be 21, and training now takes 18 months.
“We’re the forgotten people in a way,” Herbert says. “Airplanes take off and land all the time and no one really thinks about air traffic, and that’s kind of cool because airplanes take off and land hundreds of times a day, safely, because of us.”