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Sunday, June 22, 2008
Grounded rulers of the sky
Inside the tight schedule of air traffic controllers at Tokyo's busy Haneda Airport
By RAJU THAKRAR
His sharp, calm gaze follows yet another aircraft swooping down from the cloudless sky, its tires screeching in clouds of blue smoke as it returns to Earth on Haneda's concrete runway. One more flight successfully completed, he thinks — and now the next.
Despite being responsible for thousands of lives every day, he emanates a cool, poised and professional demeanor.
Though his job may be devoid of incident or mishap for 99.99 percent of the time, it's that 0.01 percent that he's really there for — when the slightest slip in concentration will result in a tragedy making headlines around the world, with hundreds of people being incinerated or ripped to bits.
Pilots may be at the controls of the planes that daily transport millions of people across countries, continents and time zones, but it is the air traffic controllers (ATCs) who are the true "kings of the sky" as they successfully manage hundreds of flights, day in and day out, through their takeoffs, landings and journeys in between.
Nowhere in Japan is the pressure on an ATC as intense as at Haneda Airport, which is less than 30 minutes by train from central Tokyo. With 65.8 million passengers passing through in 2006, Haneda is not only Japan's busiest airport but the world's fourth-busiest after London's Heathrow Airport, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.
To find out what exactly the 130 ATCs at Haneda do, and how they cope with the pressures of the job, I managed to negotiate myself into the control tower where they work — access that is, apparently, a rare privilege.
Not a cloud was in the sky when, a little while back, I hopped onto the monorail train from downtown Hamamatsucho Station to Haneda Airport. About halfway through the 25-minute journey, the airport's extensive acreage came into view, dominated by the 77-meter-high control tower I was heading for.
The tower rises from a building a few minutes' walk from the main terminal building, but ascending it has deliberately been made difficult. After taking an elevator from ground level, you next have to walk down a corridor, up some stairs, along another corridor and then up another flight of stairs. Nowhere are there any signs directing you to the control tower. Obviously, this mystery tour is all in the name of security.
Finally — having left my imaginary AK-47, plastic explosives and stun grenades on a window ledge I passed — I climbed breathlessly to the top of the tower. From there, the 360-degree panorama made up for it all. To the north, central Tokyo's skyscrapers filled the skyline, while to the southeast I could make out Yokohama's Landmark Tower rising 296 meters into the sky. Then, to the west, what appeared to be a mere blip on the landscape turned out to be no less than iconic, 3,776-meter Mount Fuji.
The 10 ATCs I encountered in their control center atop the tower were either standing around gazing at the sky or sitting at their keyboards and screens gazing into the troposphere — that part of the high atmosphere planes fly in — while occasionally breaking the silence with "call signals" such as "All Nippon 3-3," "Japan Air 1-2-1-5" or "Korean Air 8-1-5" through their headsets.
Just then, an incoming airliner from Hokkaido was starting its final approach to the runway, followed closely by a line of others from here and there and then some. In total, I counted five planes forming a descending line from about 10 km away heading to their landings in front of us.
Taking a moment's break, one of the young ATCs, probably in her early 20s, turned to a female colleague beside her and said something that made both of them laugh. Under so much pressure, you wouldn't think they'd have the time to exchange jokes.
"If I tried to maintain my concentration 100 percent of the time, I'd easily get tired," said Kenko Shimizu, 42, who has been an ATC for 20 years. So, he said, sometimes they really need to break the tension, "while keeping an eye on the planes."
From the time of each flight's planning until it lands at its destination, every stage requires the attention of several different controllers, who seamlessly "hand off" the flight as it passes from one area of authority to the next.
Take, for example, a 747 jumbo jet about to take off from Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, bound for Haneda. The ATC in charge of ground control — a key operation overseeing taxiing for takeoff or returning to park at the terminal — will give the pilot permission to proceed to the runway designated for takeoff. Once there, the flight is handed off to the tower controller by way of a radio frequency change. After takeoff, but before the flight reaches the edge of his "airspace," the tower controller hands it over to the departure controllers monitoring it on radar, who will in turn hand it over to the Fukuoka Area Control Center. (There are four ACCs to cover Japan's entire airspace, the other three being in Sapporo [Hokkaido], Tokorozawa [north of Tokyo] and Naha [Okinawa].)
When the plane gets within 80 nautical miles (148 km) of Haneda, it is picked up by an ATC at the Tokyo Area Control Center in Tokorozawa. Finally, when the plane is 5 nautical miles (9 km) away from Haneda, it comes under the jurisdiction of the airport's control tower, which will issue a clearance for its final approach and landing. After that, it's back to a ground-control ATC to shepherd the aircraft safely to its final stop, where passengers disembark through their gates and go on with their lives blissfully unaware of the number of people involved in getting them to their chosen destination, or the pressures of responsibility for making sure it happened without incident.