Sky is the limit – By Gloria Caleb

June 26, 2005

Gloria Caleb wrote and article titled “Sky is the limit”, which appeared in The Magazine of DAWN. The article talks about Tabassum Qureshi (Class of 1974) who is the first woman Air Traffic Controller in Pakistan. The article was published on June 26, 2005 and can be viewed on their website by clicking here. The article is also reproduced below for your convenience.

There was a time when people thought women were not meant to do jobs like controlling air traffic. Not any more

AIR traffic controlling has often been considered a male-oriented profession. But now there are quite a few women who have entered this profession and are making a place for themselves just like in other spheres of life.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they came, they saw, and they conquered. But jokes apart, women in our country have come a long way and a clear example of this observation is Tabassum Iftikhar Qureshi, Haj terminal manager at the Karachi airport. She has been serving in this field for the last 21 years.

“It all began when I came across an advertisement placed by the Civil Aviation Authority, which was just another department that came under the Ministry of Defence at that time. Women were encouraged to apply and so I thought why not give it a try. I was already quite impressed by my brother who was in the air force, so there was no doubt in my mind that this was the thing for me,” recalls Tabassum.

A total of 1,300 women sat for the exam in 1983, and let me remind you, that wasn’t the time when the women’s liberation movement had gained pace. Only 20 were selected, yet this measure spoke volumes for the liberal thinking of the organization, which until recently was only men’s forte.

“We were interviewed and sent for training at the Civil Aviation Training Institute (CATI) in Hyderabad. There we were very well taken care of, as Mrs Khurshid Anwer Mirza, the wife of the first director-general of the CAA (when it was given the status of an autonomous body), personally made sure that everything went well with the girls,” Tabassum reminisces fondly.

The CAA announces positions in various newspapers and if you hold a bachelors degree in arts, commerce or science then you are eligible to apply. After this you need to take a test and once you get through this, comes the stage of the interview and medical test. Let me tell all who aspire to be air traffic controllers someday that the selection process is extremely tedious but since ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going,’ I guess there is nothing to worry. Once selected, the recruit is sent to the CATI for a year of rigorous training where he/she is exposed to life-like situations on air traffic control simulators. As mentioned earlier, the CATI (Civil Aviation Training Institute) is declared as the regional centre by the International Civil Aviation Organization where recruits are trained to take up the challenges of their profession.

So did you think getting at the CATI was tough? According to Tabassum the selection process is just the tip of the iceberg and since training is extremely tough, most people dropout during this period. This works well as the aim of this training is to bring to the forefront people who can cope up with the challenges of the profession.

After training, these professionals are posted to the aerodrome section of various airports. This is the first level and is extremely important for one’s professional growth. In the aerodrome or the tower, the controllers guide the pilot while taxing away (that is when the aircraft runs along the ground before take-off and after landing). Clearance to land is also given by the aerodrome controller since it is he/she who can view the area up to five nautical miles. This constitutes the complete ground area of the airport. It is essential that a controller serves in the aerodrome for a year or two, before he/she is promoted to the next level, that is, the Area Control Centre.

As soon as the five-mile limit exceeds the aircraft comes under the protective wings of the Area Control Centre. Here the controller guides the aircraft as far as 200 miles. For example, if a flight takes off at Karachi and is going to Lahore, the controllers at the Area Control Centre in Karachi will keep track of it only till the aircraft is within Karachi limits; after that, the Lahore Area Control Centre takes over. This is when the expertise of the controllers at the Approach Control Lahore Centre come into play.

The ‘approach control’ is the highest and the most challenging level in the career of an air traffic controller. One reaches this level only after serving at different area control centres for about at least five years. However, the controller is not promoted directly to this level. For this, he/she once again has to undergo a three-month training course at the CATI. Once the training is complete the proud trainee is all set to meet the challenge of a lifetime at the Approach Control Centre. Here the controller keeps an eye on the aircraft through radar telephony. “All airspace in Pakistan is radar-controlled,” says Tabassum proudly.

Besides all the fun and excitement, the profession is extremely rewarding. “Promotions are given on the basis of your ACR and the pay scale is equal to that of men. There is no gender bias. The administration is extremely supportive of women in this field. We are provided with restroom facilities within the air control centres and every lady is provided with a locker of her own. We can also rest during lean hours. Besides this, women are only transferred when they ask for it. However, if both husband and wife are in the same profession then according to federal government laws, if the husband is transferred the wife gets transferred automatically,” says Tabassum.

That seems like a good package. But can one cope with this kind of high-pressure work with family, especially in a country where the general idea is that in-laws can virtually turn into outlaws at the slightest mistake? “Absolutely,” pat comes the reply. “We work in shifts. So if I have a morning shift, I tend to my family needs in the afternoon or night. My in-laws are also extremely supportive, they are very proud of me.” So, all in all, where there is a will there is a way.

There are many challenges associated with the field, an unstable geo-political situation being one. Flights are blocked and because of this the controller faces a lot of pressure.

Apart from that, after 9/11 controllers and the CAA are on a high alert for any terrorist activity. “All of this constantly keeps us on our toes,” says Tabassum looking a bit concerned.

One interesting fact about a crisis situation is that if a foreign aircraft is hijacked, only the president of Pakistan can grant it permission to land on Pakistan’s territory. That is why there is a hotline that is provided to the controllers through which they can get in touch with the president 24 hours a day. However, if because of some reason the president is unavailable, this crucial decision is taken by the air traffic controller.

Nights are usually hectic as a lot of flights come in. Most of these flights are in transit. Controllers generate 95 per cent of the CAA’s revenue as airlines pay heavily during stopovers.

Tabassum feels that it is a hectic profession, yet it is extremely rewarding all the same. If one has the drive to succeed then there is no stopping. “I have taken a number of courses, a management course from the PIM, an ATC course from Bath (England) and an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) curriculum design course from Adis Ababa. Now I do most of the CAA curriculum designing in Pakistan myself.”

So the truth is that it is an exciting profession with ample opportunity for growth and no room for boredom.

Tabassum best describes this scenario as, “It seems as though we’re playing a video game, where our skills and abilities are put to test. Our scenario keeps changing all the time.”

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