Every year, while most of us are enjoying turkey, mince pies and questionable festive TV, there are people across the country who give up that time to help others. Doctors, nurses, paramedics and many others forgo time with their families to look after those who need it most.

Air traffic controllers might not be in the business of saving lives, but every day they – along with our engineers – help thousands of people reach their destinations safely. And the same is true throughout the holiday period, with controllers across the country giving up time with family and friends to help make sure others can get to theirs.

That might mean missing part of the festivities, delaying them until the end of a shift or being on standby with half an eye on the phone. For those on the overnight shift into Christmas Day, it can mean a rush to get home in time to see the kids wake-up to whatever Santa’s delivered.

I spoke to a few controllers from across NATS about the highs and lows to being a controller at Christmas.

Inside the tower at Belfast

Jill has worked in the tower at Belfast International for 20 years. This year she’s volunteered to cover Christmas to free up colleagues with younger children to enjoy the day. “It’s pay-back really for the years I had when my children were little, so I don’t mind. I’m also training for the Disney Dopey Challenge in January – 48.6 Miles in four consecutive days – so it’s a good excuse to keep away from the wine!”

Looking out for each other seems to be a recurring theme among ATC units. As a controller of 38 years’ experience, Kevin suspects he’s worked as many as 20 Christmases, and is now a watch manager in Manchester Airport tower: “Working on Christmas is an accepted part of the job, but I always try to do my best to get those with young children off for Christmas Day morning, since I’ve been in the same position myself and know what joy it can bring.”

Inside Manchester tower

While it’s a day of celebration and fun for most, air ambulance, organ transplant and other emergency flights are a reminder that for some it can be so much more. “I’ve had colleagues called in on Christmas Day to make sure an emergency medical flight can land, so I always tell my children that if it was ever for them, I’d be glad someone was there,” says Jill.

Lorna works in Aberdeen tower looking after flights to the offshore oil and gas rigs, and to Shetland. “This year I start at 06.30 when I’ll take over from the night shift and will work until about 10.00 when I’ll be on call for any search and rescue or ambulance flights. I often think about the people offshore for Christmas and the Coastguard and HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Services) crews around the country that are also working. They do such an important job.”

Obviously, being an air traffic controller under any circumstances is a responsible and serious job, but are there any opportunities for a little festive cheer? Mark is a controller in Heathrow tower: “You invariably get a selection of Christmas jumpers and there’s always plenty of food to nibble on. Plus there’s always a container of sweets around somewhere!” But Fran, a controller and group supervisor based at Swanwick Centre, can do one better: “I worked one Christmas where everyone came in in black tie and cocktail dresses!”

If only the pilots knew…

Inside London Terminal at Swanwick Centre

Inside London Terminal at Swanwick Centre

One universal truth seems to be the sense of camaraderie between everyone working over Christmas and a determination to help people get where they need to be.

Mihiri is a watch manager and controller at Stansted Airport: “We’re there for the few who may have flights to take them home to their families or the occasional medical flights carrying organs to those in need. But you never fail to hear those words… ‘Happy Christmas’ over the RT.”

Mark adds: It’s nice to see happy people in the terminal travelling for a winter break, or children off to see far flung relatives. I worked the year when we had persistent fog in the days before, where we were seeing people trying to get to places in time to be with their loved ones, and it gives you a sense of resolve to try to ensure everybody gets to where they want to be.”

But for some, working over the festive period does have some advantages…

“People often come in early on Christmas Day to relieve the previous shift so they can get home,” says Mihir, “but I suspect for some it’s as much about getting out of peeling the spuds and sprouts!

And finally, any sightings of that all-important Christmas Eve delivery flight? “I thought I saw Rudolph’s red nose once but it was the navigation light of an overflight coming off the Atlantic tracks…” says Kevin

Whether you’re travelling or not next week, on behalf of everyone at NATS, here’s wishing you a happy, peaceful and safe Christmas.

And don’t forget you can generate your own personalised Santa flight plan in our Elf Traffic Control portal at nats.aero/Christmas.


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