Controlling traffic a 'passion'

SAM BOYER
Last updated 05:00 12/02/2013
Airport Control
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

HIGH FLYER: Stefan Plass, senior air controller, gets a kick out of keep the city's skies safe.

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Just about every day, Wellington airport's air traffic controllers monitor and advise planes when to take off and land, while all around them are panoramic views of the city.

But senior air traffic controller Stefan Plass, 45, said that "while the great views are a perk, keeping the skies safe is a passion".

It wasn't enough just to be good at the functions, he said. You needed to care.

"We've got people who are interested in aviation. People often come from flying backgrounds and flying families. If you were just sort of a maths whiz, that wouldn't be enough . . . you've got to have a certain feeling for it."

Working in Wellington, he said, had its own particular difficulties.

"It can be stressful in Wellington with the windy days. For us it increases the workload. And when the weather is bad and they [pilots in the air] can't see the other planes around, the ball's in our court. We've got to make sure they don't hit each other.

"With the hills and mountains, it gives us some limitations on what we can do with our planes and our equipment. Wellington Airport itself, being a rather small airport for space, it makes it a bit tricky here sometimes. We need to plan ahead."

The air traffic controllers manning the tower stay in contact with all pilots leaving or arriving at the airport, including helicopters and smaller, private craft.

Mr Plass has been in his Wellington role for five years. He moved to New Zealand in January 2008 from Germany, where he was an air traffic controller in the German air force for about 18 years.

He picked up flying about 10 years after he learnt his trade, he said, so he could see both points of view, when pilots and air traffic controllers disagreed.

"Sometimes we can tell by the way they respond [to our instructions] that they're not happy with what we've told them."

Ultimately, the air traffic controllers have the final say. It's their job to keep aircraft safe.

In an average month there are about 8000 movements in and out of the one runway, with about 90 per cent of those movements being large commercial planes.

"If you ask the pilots, they would rather do it without us. But if you ask us, we'd say there would be chaos without us."

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- The Dominion Post

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