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Smooth operator

On a busy day, the tower at Dubai's airport contends with more than 900 flights. Making sure that every plane takes off and lands without a hitch requires deft manoeuvring. Ed Lake reports.

On a busy day, the tower at Dubai's airport contends with more than 900 flights. Making sure that every plane takes off and lands without a hitch requires deft manoeuvring.

Prediction is a funny business. In one sense, an atom is simpler than a person: atoms are what people are made of, for the most part at least. Yet in the long run it's much easier to guess what a person will do, especially if you know them well. Make a lunch date with an old friend from school and you can be reasonably sure they'll be there. Make a date with a hydrogen particle and you'll get stood up. Strange, that. The thing is, while one atom in a vacuum will behave in quite a predictable way, out in the world where it keeps colliding with other particles, its interactions get too complicated to calculate. It's Isaac Newton's three body problem times the biggest number you like.

Luckily, most of us don't need to worry about that. We're born with a grasp of mechanics just sufficient to flap our bodies about without knocking too many things over. We make plans and predictions by understanding people, by knowing what they want and knowing how good they are at getting it. In our day-to-day lives, psychology usually trumps physics. One place it doesn't quite cut it, however, is in the control tower of a major international airport.

Take Dubai, for instance. On a busy day, Dubai International Airport will have to contend with arrivals and departures from more than 900 flights. These flights will all be piloted by human beings, of course, but the air traffic controller (ATC) won't necessarily know them very well. They will be manoeuvring through three dimensions at once, which is difficult to get your head around when you're used to walking about on the ground. They will be moving at incredible speeds, buffeted by winds, trailing turbulent slipstreams, spiralling one another in a crowded sky. And they'll keep coming, in ever greater numbers. Newton would have a fit.

"Dubai airport is in the top 10 worldwide for traffic volume, and the only one reporting positive growth to date," says Lorne Riley, the airport's head of corporate communications. "It's definitely the only one reporting double-digit growth." For the past five months, Dubai's rate of traffic increase has hovered at around 12 per cent, give or take one or two. "We'll pass 40.5 million passengers this year for the first time, and we'll go to 46 million passengers next year," Riley says. "The long-range forecast is just under eight per cent per annum for the next decade." That's a lot more than three bodies to keep in the air. It takes a certain kind of mind to keep track of them all. If anyone knows what kind, it's Don Whyte, the head of air traffic control operations at Dubai Air Navigation Service. So, what makes a good controller?

"A very interesting question," he says. "We go through a whole battery of aptitude testing, psychometric testing." It's a bright morning and we're in the control tower where Whyte has just been indicating the different weight classes of passenger jets that beetle up and down the runways below. That's another part of the puzzle that controllers have to fit together: different weight ratios require different safety intervals in the air. The more one hears about the big picture, the more one's brain goes into spasms. But the atmosphere in the tower is relaxed, focused. Around us there are brief, good-humoured exchanges. "I think you've got to be fairly gregarious," Whyte says. "You've got to be logical, you've got to be able to make decisions fast, and you've got to be very adaptable." That makes sense: social skills are important given that controllers have to spend their hours liaising between pilots and the guardians of neighbouring patches of sky. Solid deductive powers are required to make sense of the streams of spatio-numerical information their monitors deliver. And flexibility on the fly? "Certain things change almost on a daily basis," Whyte says. "The same method of solving yesterday's problem might not apply today."

What, I ask, might count as a problem? Do planes drop out of radio contact? Whyte laughs. "Fortunately we don't lose contact with aircraft too often these days," he says. "It's really quite amusing to think that you can now make contact with a mobile phone in the air, so losing contact is not that much of an issue ... What we find is generally speaking hydraulic problems, or any sick passengers, that kind of thing. We want to afford that aircraft priority."

It's coming up for 9am but it's dark in the bunker-like radar room where two men are responsible for traffic in the Dubai control area, a great cylinder of sky that hovers almost 460m above the airport. One controller takes arrivals, the other departures, guiding their planes to keep a safe distance without wasting time or fuel. Their monitors are crowded with dots, each carrying information about the type and speed of the plane it represents. "The thing that's interesting about radar is that you're thinking ahead all the time," Whyte says (he isn't one of the guys manning the consoles, you'll be relieved to learn). "An aircraft will be going at a certain speed and you're sort of picturing where it's going to be." And it isn't just one aircraft; it's a swarm. So what do you do? You divide and rule.

The physics help a bit here. Aeroplanes are designed both to take off and land facing into the wind. This means the flow through the airport is generally all in one direction. The controller in charge of departures handles the upwind side of the map and the arrivals person takes downwind. There's a funnel of space, clearly marked on their monitors, into which the new take-offs fan out. Arrivals that are flying downwind towards Dubai have to avoid that region, overshooting the airport and looping back into a funnel of their own. That's how things usually work, anyway. "They can obviously, in order to expedite things," says Whyte airily, "go through each other's airspace. It requires co-ordination though."

Whyte has worked in air traffic control for 25 years, most of his adult life. A Scotsman who grew up in South Africa, he arrived in the UAE from the UK 13 years ago. ("The original plan," he says, "as with nine out of 10 people you speak to, was a couple of years. A change in lifestyle and here I am, still here and still loving it.") His managerial duties have dragged him away from the radar console, though not for long. "In January I'm training up on the tower again," he says. "I'm looking forward to that .... It's not just a job, it's a real passion." Still, for someone who likes they way radar forces you to think ahead, Whyte's supervisory role gives him plenty to anticipate. As the dots on the radar keep shifting, the world of air traffic control is reconfiguring itself in so many ways it would take an ATC to stay on top of them.

Never mind the ever-mounting volume of traffic. Never mind the challenge of Emiratising a job that Whyte concedes is "historically not a glamorous position," but which requires an incredibly severe three-year course of vocational training. Let's start with the small stuff: technology. It's part of the mythology of air traffic control that computers haven't been able to replace the little paper slips - flight strips, as they're called - on which controllers record details about incoming and outgoing flights. The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell once made this odd fact the centrepiece of an essay about the primacy of paper in a knowledge economy. "Had the computer come first," he concluded, "and paper second - no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air traffic control centres." Except, as Whyte explains, it isn't true. "We are working towards electronic process strips," he says. "We've just gone through a tender process. We're waiting for the bids." New Zealand has already kitted out several towers with a computerised system. The advantage is that more information can be recorded - for instance if every piece of data entered carries a time stamp - and the archives can be searched and analysed easily. From such analyses, it is hoped that greater operational efficiencies may be discovered.

Training is another area where the role of computers is changing. In a replica of the radar room, controllers are put through simulations of various traffic situations. The simulations are scripted rather than randomly generated - shades of the Kobayashi Maru sequence in the recent Star Trek film. But as Whyte says: "We try to cover as many different scenarios as we possibly can," and random generation would be a slow way to cover the bases. Here's the thing, though: part of the air traffic operation is going to relocate to Dubai World Central Maktoum International, and that will have repercussions for training. "Because it's a greenfield airport," says Whyte, "the training at DWCMI will be simulated only." That is, there will be no live radar exercises.

Then there's DWCMI itself. A large chunk of Dubai's air traffic control operation is to shift halfway across Dubai over the next couple of years - "probably the end of 2011," Whyte says, though that depends on when the building work is finished. The tower will stay put of course: the best place to watch an aerodrome is inside the aerodrome. But the windowless radar room could be anywhere, and where it's going to be is a new technical facility at Jebel Ali. So, there's the puzzle of how to move premises without leaving a sky full of planes to fend for itself. "We're exploring the different options," Whyte says. "One option of course is having a joint operation" - that is, two radar departments watching the same patch of sky. "We're looking to choose the safest and most efficient transition. But it's going to take an awful lot of planning because we want to make sure we get it right."

Later in our talk, Whyte dismisses my suggestion that air traffic control must be a uniquely taxing business for the nerves. "Any unusual situation of course elevates your senses, gets the adrenalin going, and that's where the stress comes in," he says. "But overall the guys are generally very relaxed, highly qualified, well trained, know what they're doing and are trained to react to those unusual events." Surely with the changes afoot in Dubai air navigation, soon every event will be an unusual event. Whyte isn't fazed. "Anything new that is introduced will go through a very robust training scheme," he says. "We won't just walk up and stick in a new voice switch."

"You think it's a very stressful job," he tells me, "but you look around you: everyone's very calm." The tower is filled with a gentle hubbub. "We try and manage the workload," he says. "We try and make sure that we manage the traffic as efficiently as we can." And down on the tarmac, the planes keep rising and falling, guided through their invisible mazes by pure attention. The trick is, you just have to keep thinking ahead.

elake@thenational.ae

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