The eyes on the skiesSeen from afar, the structure that stands high above everything else on Yeongjongdo, an island off Korea’s west coast, resembles a tower from one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
The road leading to the building is lined on either side with barbed wire equipped with electronic sensors. The tower itself is guarded by a barbed-wire fence and a heavy iron gate, which slowly slides open, granting access only to those in possession of an electronic pass.
This 100-meter-high building, shaped like a scepter planted into the ground, is Incheon International Airport’s air traffic control tower. Beyond the gate, a glass door serves as the tower’s entrance. Inside, two guards in a booth peer suspiciously at visitors through a small window while scanning their ID cards.
An elevator delivers people to the top in a couple of short breaths. The final barrier to the heart of the tower, at its top floor, is a door secured by an access code and a fingerprint scanner.
The workplace on the top floor is no ordinary office. Shaped like an octagon, with a small booth at the center and more booths at the edges, the room has windows on all sides. In the distance, sunlight glimmers off the waters of the Yellow Sea.
It’s a panoramic view probably matched by few workplaces in Korea, if any. But it seems lost on the eight people working frantically here, staring at computer screens and talking into headsets.
These are the airport’s air traffic controllers, who do much the same job that traffic policemen do on the ground, but with much more at stake. Stay in this room as long as you like, and there is one word you’ll probably never hear.
“Nobody here mentions the word ‘crash,’” one traffic controller says. “It just does not exist in our vocabulary.”
Watching a screen with dots moving around on it like fireflies on a summer night, a controller taps rapidly on a button. Numbers pop up and disappear until, seeming to have found what he is looking for, the man leans over to take a closer look at a figure: 3500. “Could be better,” he says.
The controller, Hwang Dae-ho, is referring to visibility, which at the moment is 3,500 meters. Five thousand meters is considered ideal for overseeing operations at the airport. “The more visibility, the easier it is for us to see what’s going on, while it gives the pilots flexibility in the air,” Mr. Hwang says.
The tower’s crew starts guiding a plane when it gets within 60 miles of the airport. From that point, guiding it in for landing takes about 15 minutes.
With almost 16 years of experience under his belt, including 12 in the air force, Mr. Hwang is part of a day-shift team that, during a given shift, directs about 250 planes. At night, the workload drops significantly, with only 35 or so planes taking off and landing between early evening and mid-morning.
The tower is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is manned by 25 controllers, who work in three shifts. There is one day crew and two night crews; because the night shift lasts 16 hours, the night crews alternate, each working every other night.
“It’s not only about directing a flight into the airport,” Mr. Hwang says. “If the airport is busy, the plane is put into a traffic pattern with other aircraft waiting to land. It’s like organizing a waiting list, you know?”
Whether a plane is landing or taking off, it requires the support of five controllers acting as a team, each performing a particular function. For instance, ground controllers are responsible for guiding planes on the ground to their assigned gates, while departure controllers guide planes out of the airport’s airspace.
At the Incheon airport, a minimum of 100 meters’ visibility is required for a plane to land or take off. “It’s very rare that a flight is canceled or delayed because of fog,” says Han Yeong-woo, the head of the control tower, who has more than 20 years of experience. “Sometimes you hear in the news that that has happened. To us, that’s a slap in the face,” Mr. Han adds, shaking his head.
When there are delays for visibility reasons, he says, it’s generally the pilot’s decision, not the tower’s. “Often, pilots give up because they don’t have the ability to navigate their plane through those condiditions, although we view [the conditions] as acceptable,” Mr. Han says.
The bulk of the crew’s job is to make sure there’s a safe distance between all aircraft at all times. There’s never been an actual collision at the airport. But because of the number of lives at stake if there were one, the pressure is nevertheless intense. “Near misses” are taken into account when judging an individual controller’s performance.
“If two planes get within 5,000 meters [of each other], for us that’s a no-no. It happens about four or five times a year,” says Mr. Han.
Those who are judged responsible for letting it happen have to face various administrative punishments, and are put under constant supervision by senior controllers.
Korean air traffic controllers have to be graduates of the country’s lone aviation college, or have equivalent military experience. Until they reach 40, they have to undergo a thorough physical examination every two years; after 40, it’s once a year. Eyesight and hearing are the most important aspects of the physicals.
Despite the gravity of the job, it offers little in the way of financial compensation. Air traffic controllers are civil servants, working for the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, and their pay is typical of Korea’s civil service. An freshly-hired air traffic controller gets paid at the ninth grade, like any other new civil servant; this amounts to a mere 571,400 won ($478) per month, not counting benefits.
Is the job as stressful as people say it is?
“Why should it not be stressful? Well, apart from reporters, we think that our profession has the heaviest drinkers,” Mr. Hwang laughs. “We are dealing with people’s lives here every moment, and that raises the whole stress level.”
“You have to make several decisions in a split second, and you have to be absolutely comfortable with them,” Mr. Han says. “There are no alternatives for a bad decision here. But maybe that responsibility is what makes us work harder.”
by Brian Lee