As the world prepares for this doubling of passengers in the next 20 years, airports in the region are prioritising improvements to their human and physical aviation infrastructure. Many airports are creating blueprints to guide their strategic growth. The Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) for example is currently executing its master plan which includes the construction of a third runway scheduled to open in 2023 and the roll-out of a billion-dollar air control system. An integral part of this growth strategy is addressing the recruitment and training of qualified airport personnel.

In modern air travel, where technology is involved in almost all operational processes, the need for professionally trained air traffic controllers (ATCOs) still remains a top priority. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – the UN’s civil aviation arm – estimates that the world will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers by the year 2030, with Asia Pacific needing to staff its airports with an additional 1,000 controllers each year.

Air traffic management is said to be the “invisible” part of the air transport value chain and this may be the reason why young people or mid-career professionals are not aware of it as a career option. NATS recently launched a recruitment drive in the UK for graduates and people from all walks of life to consider careers in air traffic control. It currently has about 1,700 controllers managing the flow of aircraft through UK airspace and at 13 of the country’s busiest airports and is looking to hire more than 200 trainees a year to keep up with demand. It is also assisting airport operators like HKIA in the Asia Pacific in their recruitment drives.

Other countries like Singapore and Australia are addressing the issue by improving training facilities and job prospects.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is scaling up training programmes and reviewing ATCO work, career progression and benefits to ensure candidates are provided with attractive career packages and remuneration. It hopes to have 600 air traffic controllers on-staff by 2020, up from 390 two years ago.

In Australia, air traffic controllers, along with other air transport professionals, have joined surgeons and anaesthetists among the country’s top income earners, thanks to the high standards of training programmes run by Airservices Australia. These careers are seen as not only lucrative but highly respected, due to the responsibility ATCOs have.

Across the world and in the Asia Pacific, there are also efforts made to attract more women to join the aviation and airport industry to address the ATCO talent gap in a predominantly male industry. For example, during the recent International Civil Aviation Day on 7 December 2018, Women in Aviation International (India Chapter), Lockheed Martin and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) celebrated the 3rd “Girls in Aviation Day”. Ninety female students from various schools were invited to New Delhi for an informative session on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects for careers in aviation, including air traffic control. With women making up only 13 per cent of air traffic controllers under its charge, Airservices Australia has also recently started encouraging more women to apply for its air traffic controller trainee programme through targeted advertising.

The ATCO recruitment issue will require ongoing effort to address, and there is no one-fix solution across regions. Governments and airport operators need to adopt multi-prong strategies – from allocating bigger budgets for training and recruitment to addressing inherent professional challenges faced by controllers. Industry associations can also play their part by championing best practices and holding stakeholder consultations to accelerate initiatives and reforms.

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