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Who keeps aircraft coordinated at busy airports every day? How do all those planes land and take off safely? The answer lies with NAV CANADA'the company that owns and operates the country's air navigation service and that trains and employs air traffic controllers in Canada.

As area controllers, we are responsible for safely and efficiently ensuring separation between airplanes, and anything else required to get airplanes safely to their destinations, says Nolan Rasmussen, area air traffic controller at the Winnipeg airport. He started as a direct entry area controller student, then moved on to a year of specialized schooling followed by nine months of on-the-job training.  

As an air traffic controller, he provides route and altitude instructions, weather information, notice to airmen, manages restricted airspace, directs aircraft that may be dealing with destination changes or medical emergencies, and coordinates with other controllers.

Managing airspace and ensuring the safety of each aircraft movement is a challenging job. But Rasmussen says the operational work environment is different from what most people think. Contrary to popular belief, not all air traffic controllers work in a tower.

We work at the area control centre. Our operations room at the area control center is a large room with different specialties. Each sector has a radar screen and several other computer screens that provide info such as weather, flight plan data, communications, and other operational information.

A typical air traffic controller shift is 8.5 hours long. It begins with a computer-based briefing informing of changes or special operations that have occurred since the last shift. After a verbal briefing of airspace conditions, the shift is handed over to the next controller. Breaks depend on traffic and staffing and can include a trip to the on-site gym, outdoor patio, computer room, or the quiet room for a quick rest.

It is important that we don't sit for prolonged periods of time, so we can remain alert, he says. Breaks give us the chance to relax and perform other tasks that can't be done while in an operating position.

To succeed as a controller you need to be able to make quick and accurate decisions, process a constant stream of information from different sources, and apply it to the right situation in a timely manner. You need to be very committed and ready to study hard. Training to become a controller, however, is not the only challenge.

Some challenges include shift work. You work nights, weekends, and holidays. There will be lots of times where you will not be able to attend family gatherings, trips with friends and other events that are scheduled around a Monday to Friday schedule.

Nonetheless, Rasmussen enjoys the variety in the day of an air traffic controller. When you show up at work, you never know exactly what will be happening during that shift. Traffic patterns are always changing, different events change the regular work flow, weather causes everything to change and you have to be very flexible to make everything work.

For more info on becoming an air traffic controller, as well as other careers in the field, check out

Photos: Courtesy of NAV CANADA