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A simple, immediate solution to potentially dangerous shortage of air traffic control officers



BY Capt. G A Fernando MBA
RCyAF/ SLAF, Air Ceylon, AirLanka, SIA, Sri Lankan Airlines.

In a recent interview conducted by Chamuditha Samarawickrama of Truth with Chamuditha fame with Thisara Amarananda, President of the Sri Lanka Air Traffic Controllers’ Association (SLATCA), it was revealed that the existing cadre of Air Traffic Control Officers was dangerously low due to migration of senior Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) seeking more lucrative jobs abroad.

There are only 80 ATCOs instead of the required 138. They currently work overtime to keep air traffic services going. If four more ATCOs leave, it will lead to cumulative fatigue which may eventually bring the services provided in Sri Lankan airspace to a halt.

As a possible consequence our airspace of over 60,000 square nautical miles will be carved out amongst adjoining or regional countries such as Indonesia, Australia, Maldives and India. Sri Lanka will lose valuable foreign exchange revenue amounting to an average of $35,000 per day, derived from payment by airlines for flying through Sri Lankan airspace. Sri Lanka in turn provides the carriers with flight monitoring and traffic Information, and search and rescue facilities.

An Air Traffic Controller’s job is unique, requiring a good standard of English and communication skills. While the job generally maintains a lower profile than most others in the eyes of the general public, the service is provided day in and day out 24/7. Maintaining the flow of aircraft in and out of airports and en route is essential to aviation safety. This is also why the work of Air Traffic Control is rated as one of the most stressful in the world (Montgomery, 2010).

ATCOs function at three levels. (1) Aerodrome Controllers who use their eyes and ears while in the control tower of an airport up to an altitude of about 4,000 feet; (2) Approach Controllers who monitor and control air traffic on radar from 4,000 feet to 15,000 feet; and (3) Area Controllers (from Ratmalana) who control traffic above 15,000ft on radar and Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) when beyond line of sight. (Radar works on line-of-sight only.) It is obvious that a competent ATCO cannot be produced overnight.

The aviation environment is generally assumed, by the general public in particular, to be safe. The importance and significance of an ATCO’s job will only come into focus in the event of a high-profile incident or accident. In the past, all control and separation of air traffic was maintained by the use of headings and altitudes provided to the aircraft, known as ‘tactical radar vectoring’. With the introduction of new/future air navigation systems, separation of the majority of aircraft arrivals and departures at airports are looked after automatically. As a result, old skills of Air Traffic Controllers are lost and new skills have to be learnt. Separation and sequencing of aircraft could be done en route, long before their arrival at the destination airport. Because all aircraft are still not equipped with future air navigation systems, and the air traffic control systems are in the process of being modernised, the Air Traffic Controller enforces a ‘mixed mode’, i.e. controlling the old and the new, adding further stress to the conduct of the job.

The job of an Air Traffic Controller requires extensive training, knowledge, experience and skill, enabling the individual to ensure a safe, expeditious and orderly flow of air traffic with economy, collectively known as ‘Air Traffic Management’ (ATM). According to Costa (1996), there are six main ‘Stressors’ that affect the Job of Air Traffic Controllers: (1) Demand; (2) Operating Procedures; (3) Working times; (4) Working tools; (5) Working environment; and (6) Work Organisation.

(1)  Demand: The number of aircraft under the purview of an Air Traffic Controller will constantly vary during a given duty period. The stress factor is directly proportional to this number. Accordingly, there will be highs and lows in the Air Traffic Controller’s workload during a given duty period. There could be unanticipated, nonessential traffic causing distractions, as well as unexpected events such as bad weather, medical and technical emergencies occurring in air traffic under their control.

(2)  Standard Operating Procedures: Another stress factor is the need to operate within Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) required by the relevant organisations (Airport and Aviation Ltd and Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka) while striving to perform under constant, real-time pressure, sometimes creating the need to even bend the rules to get the work done. Working on the edge of maintaining control while realising the terrible consequences of a genuine human error adds to the anxiety and stress.

(3) Working Times: The working times could be any time of day or night and the Air Traffic Controller is expected to work at 100 percent efficiency (and nothing less) irrespective of the circadian (body clock) lows. Usually the job involves shift duties which sometimes lead to extended duty time to cover for an absent colleague. This adds to the stress. (Job and Home)

(4) Working Tools: The equipment an Air Traffic Controller has to work with, such as microphones, headsets, telephones, badly designed control panel layouts and radar display screens that may be old and outdated, is another source of stress. On the other hand, there is the need to become competent with futuristic technology for Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS), including (CPDLC). The controllers need to regularly attend training courses and certification, to update themselves, thereby causing stress.

(5) Work Environment: Noise, light, temperature, ventilation, sitting posture, cafeteria and rest facilities, coupled with lack of seclusion from the distractions of the outside world, create stress for the Air Traffic Controller.

(6) The Work Organisation: Relationships with colleagues, salary, sometimes responsibility without authority. With the advent of Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS), there is a change of roles and responsibilities of the Air Traffic Controllers, and is bound to be stressful.

In Sri Lanka all ATCOs are University Mathematics graduates who had applied for the job as advertised in the Government Gazette. They had little or no knowledge of what the work involved. Therefore, they have to be orientated and trained ‘from scratch’. Unlike in the past in Sri Lanka, and the practice in other parts of the world, no qualified pilots were recruited to the job. The last pilot in the system retired in 2017.

Now, SriLankan Airlines has yet again advertised for Cadet Pilots and Junior First Officers. It is estimated that there are almost 200 eligible applicants. Unfortunately, many are called but only a few are selected. The selection process is not fool-proof, but considered to be the best under the circumstances.

Flight training is expensive. The requirement for eligibility is knowledge to sit and pass the Air Transport Pilots’ Licence (ATPL) theory examination and have enough flying experience and skill to be awarded a Commercial Pilots’ Licence and Instrument Rating (CPL/IR) with a twin-engine qualification endorsed on the licence. This will cost the student pilot in excess of Rs. 10 million, and take more than two years to accomplish. One has to be at least 17 years old to start basic flying training. Some go to the USA for training and exposure. Some foreign universities offer a pilot’s licence with a degree.

Unquestionably, parents undergo untold hardship to put their children through flight school. Some even get into debt and mortgage their only property. That’s the stark reality. It may not be wrong to say that most candidates are from middle class families where parents make many such sacrifices to be able to fund their children’s training for a so-called glamorous job which pays high salaries.

Airlines today have a good safety record, and although not acknowledged by the west, since 1947 Air Ceylon, Air Lanka and SriLankan Airlines have not lost a single passenger due to an air accident. All lives lost resulted from acts of terrorism. The ATCOs too, should be given due credit for the unseen and unsung role they have played and continue to play to maintain safe skies over Sri Lanka.

Due to a bottleneck in the pilot training process, SriLankan Airlines cannot recruit large numbers at once. Usually, recruitment occurs once approximately every 18 months. Those who are unsuccessful in joining the national carrier the first time have to spend three to five years applying over and over again before they find a slot in their chosen career, or become over-age. Meanwhile some become instructors in the many flying schools, or secure airline jobs abroad, while the rest (read: majority) simply give up their ambitions of becoming a pilot. There are many variables in the selection process, with an element of luck playing a large part.

Make no mistake, most young people who aren’t selected as cadets or Junior First Officers are bright, talented, enthusiastic and eager to work in the aviation industry. It is their passion that keeps them going. Unfortunately, they are not utilised in other aviation fields like Air Traffic Control. This valuable resource of qualified but inexperienced pilots, trained at great expense to their parents and the country (the latter in terms of foreign exchange for fuel, spares and equipment), isn’t recognised by either the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) or Airport and Aviation Services Ltd (AASL).

Rather than recruiting personnel ‘off the street’ as it were, these young lads and lasses could enhance the ATCO cadre as Aerodrome Controllers. They have basic aviation sense and airmanship (common sense) and will need minimum training. That’s how it was in the Sixties and seventies. While it is likely that many will later move on to their chosen profession as airline pilots, there will be a few who will opt to stay as ATCOs, thereby enriching the competency levels of the aviation industry. It is a case of resource management. This is how it happens in most parts of the world.

Could this be the solution to the potentially dangerous problem in Sri Lanka?

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Export what?



The dire need to increase Sri Lanka’s export earnings and thereby reduce the trade deficit to meet the severe financial crisis we are facing today has been emphasised by many. According to Central Bank annual reports (see Table), export incomes have not increased substantially during the last few years. Tea, which contributes around 12 % of the total exports, registered a notable decline of 16.0 per cent in 2022, attributed to many factors.

In 2022, production of high, medium, and low grown tea, declined by 13.8 per cent, 21.2 per cent, and 15.4 percent respectively. Meanwhile, the average yield in the smallholder tea sector decreased to 1,193 kilogrammes per hectare, registering a year-on-year decline of 15.6 per cent in average yield. Production of rubber and most of the other export crops too have decreased during the last decade.

Increasing exports is of paramount importance to overcome the current financial crisis. But what we are going to export is the main question. Newspaper reports indicate that the quantity of most of our crop exports has dwindled during the last few years. As indicated above, production of tea, our main export crop product, has not shown any substantial increase during the last few years. All these data indicate that the production of our export crops is dwindling and it is sine qua nun that an effective plan is implemented to increase our export incomes. In such a plan, increasing the production of currently cultivated crops such as tea, rubber and coconut need to be adequately dealt with.

Sri Lanka has a wide variation in soil and climate with 46 agro-ecological zones, each characterised by specific climate and soils making it possible the cultivation of a number of different types of crops such as tuberous crops, horticultural and floricultural crops, medicinal herbs, cane, bamboo, sunflower, castor etc. which have a considerable export potential. Out of the 6.5 million hectares of land, around 2.0 million hectares are in the wet zone. About 75% of it is cultivated and most of this land is of low-productivity due to soil degradation. In the dry zone, out of the 4.5 million hectares, only about 2 million acres are in productive use. Thus, there is a large extent of potentially cultivable land in the dry zone. Most of the soils in the dry zone are relatively more fertile than those in the wet zone. Non-availability of adequate rainfall during the Yala season is one of the limiting factors of crop production in the dry zone. However, better water management practices would reduce this limitation. Also, various major irrigation projects such as Mahaweli, Kirindi Oya, Muthukandiya and Inginimitiya provide irrigation to about 200,000 hectares in the dry zone. The numerous minor irrigation projects too would increase the irrigable area in the dry zone. Thus, there is a considerable potential to increase the level of crop production in Sri Lanka.

Although there are many organisations such as the Ministries of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, Export Development Board, Industrial Development Board etc. there appears to be no proper medium long-term plan to promote the cultivation of these crops and develop appropriate agro-industries except for some ad-hoc projects. The Ministry of Industry and Agriculture should implement an effective agro-Industrial Development Programme which undoubtedly would increase our exports incomes, improve employment opportunities and incomes in the rural areas. Private sector can be involved in such projects for which appropriate technical assistance needs to be given by the relevant public organizations.

In any programme/plan to increase foreign exchange earnings from the agric. sector, agro-industries have to be given much emphasis. A large number of crops cultivated in Sri Lanka have considerable potential in various agro-industries. However only rubber, coconut and a few fruit crops are used in industries. Crops such as cassava, horticultural and floricultural crops, medicinal herbs, cane, bamboo, sunflower, castor, ayurvedic herbs, etc. have a considerable industrial potential but are not cultivated to any appreciable extent for want of better and improved varieties, technological know-how, relevant market information etc. Development of agro-industries will also increase export income and will have a tremendous impact on the economy of the country and also provide employment opportunities among rural people.   Private sector can be involved in such projects for which appropriate technical assistance needs to be given by the relevant public organizations.

There has been rhetoric on promoting exports. It is meaningful and effective actions that are necessary. Giving talks at numerous seminars etc. will not increase exports unless there is a realistic plan implemented effectively.

Dr. C. S. Weeraratna

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It’s the economy, again



There is a report in the Lankadeepa of 30 September, 2023 that thousands (‘dahas ganang’) of university graduates in biotechnology (and engineering technology) languish without employment. There is a comment that even if all of them were employed as teachers in state schools (in fact, there is no money to do so), the pool of unemployed graduates in biotechnology, which is filled yearly,

would not dry up; not dissimilarly (the reporter comments) from the fate of graduates in Arts. That graduates in biotechnology are unemployable in this economy as graduates in Arts are, validates a position that I have repeatedly brought up in these pages: university graduates and other young people are unemployed in this economy because this economy is arid and sterile and not because the education system, at whatever level, is fundamentally flawed.

The moment they land in a vigorously growing economy, they become the output of an excellent education system. Not that the education system (school and university) cannot be improved: Cambridge University has improved since 1215; Harvard University continues to improve since 1635. China (Mainland and Taiwan), Malaysia and many other economies did not await reforms in their education systems to grow rapidly as during the last several decades. It is a bit like the truism about savings and investment in the total economy: you don’t have to save to invest; if you invest savings will accommodate investment. It might be apt to say, ‘it is the economy stupid’.

The report in the Lankadipa highlighted that it was Dr. Bandula Gunawardhena, who, when he was the Minister of Education in 2012, with great enthusiasm, installed these branches of learning in schools and universities. And, he earned a Ph.D. degree in Economics!

Our erudite president of the republic, who goes around the world from one conference to another, preaching to the rest of the world, shows great enthusiasm about digitizing this economy. He is falling into the same trap as Dr. Gunewardhena fell into. You digitize a growing economy, not a moribund and bankrupt one.

It is the economy, again.


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Tribute to Dr. Nilanthi Cooray



I have known Dr. Nilanthi for more than 40 years since her marriage to my cousin Frank.Dr. Nilanthi was born in Moratuwa to a middle-class Catholic family. Her siblings include an older sister and a younger brother, and all three of them were studious. Her parents, especially her father. was a devout Catholic who was a frequent visitor to St. Sebastian’s church in Moratuwa.

Up to grade eight, Nilanthi attended Our Lady of Victories Convent in Moratuwa and then joined the Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitiya. She was accepted to the Medical College in 1972 after her successful results at the A-levels. She traveled daily from Moratuwa to the Medical college until such time she was able to get a place at the medical college hostel. During her final years at the medical college hostel, she succeeded in her studies and graduated as a doctor in 1976.

Her career began as an intern at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital Colombo for six months and another six months at the Castle Street Hospital, Borella working with leading qualified senior doctors. In 1977, she got married to her lifelong friend, Frank Cooray, who was working as a Technical Officer in the Irrigation Department. Her first appointment as a fully-fledged MBBS doctor was at the Narammala Base Hospital. Thereafter she got a transfer to the Lunawa Hospital.

After serving the required number of compulsory years (five or six years) she gave up the government job and started her own private practice. This decision seemed a calculated risk as at that time Moratuwa had enough and more reputed and recognized senior doctors such as Dr. Festus Fernando, Dr. Winston Perera, Dr. Cramer, Dr. Muthukumaru, Dr. Keerthisinghe, Dr. Guy de Silva and so on. However, within a short span of time, Nilanthi was able to establish herself as a remarkable young doctor and by the time the senior doctors retired or left Moratuwa, she had become one of the highly recognized doctors in Moratuwa with diagnostic excellence.

The demands of work and the up bringing of two little daughters made it difficult for Nilanthi to cope with everyday life. To support her, her husband gave up his job and went on voluntarily retirement after serving for 18 years at the Irrigation Department. He was just short of two years to qualify for the government pension.

In her prime of life Nilanthi was diagnosed for cancer. More time was spent in rest and prayers. Nilanthi and Frank would have prayed to God and all saints for a miracle healing. This was proved, when she went to Lourdes in France, a place known for Marian worship, to fulfill a vow, after receiving the good news from Dr. S. R. Jayatilleke, who was her oncologist, that her cancer has disappeared. This was the first thing she wanted to upon receiving the miracle healing. She got the green light from the doctor to fly. After her cancer Nilanthi slowed down in her practice and limited the number of patients per day.

Nilanthi was never interested in having a luxurious life or extra comforts like luxury cars or overseas holidays. Her life was centered around her family and her medical profession. She was a loving wife to her husband and devoted mother to her two daughters. As time passed, spending time with her four grandchildren brought her great happiness.

Only after her death that most of the people came to know about her charitable acts of kindness and in treating the poor without charging a fee. During her funeral service, a priest who gave the homily mentioned how students and staff of St. Sebastian’s College Moratuwa benefited by her treatment during their illnesses.

It was only a matter of telling her husband who was now attached to the staff at the College and he made arrangements for them to consult Dr. Nilanthi on a priority line. There was no difference between a priest, staff member, minor staff or a student (of course the student had to wear the uniform to identify their school), all were treated free of charge.

Attending the funeral service were several priests (including Bishop Anthony who was a past Rector of the College) and Christian brothers who served the college. I am certain that they came not only to pay their last respects but also to express their gratitude for taking care of them during their time of illnesses.

In the latter part of her life, her health deteriorated and with the help of her domestic aid, she had chosen a saree and a blouse for her final journey, which she did not disclose to her family members. However, when Frank came to know about it, he was upset and he had asked Nilanthi what this is all about. But she had not given any answer to that.

However, taking that opportunity she had given one more instruction to Frank, and that is after she is gone to give the gold chain round her neck to the domestic aid. For her final journey she was dressed with that particular saree and when everything was over the gold chain was given to the domestic aid.

She leaves so many special memories and a legacy of love. May her soul rest in peace.

-Ralph Gunawardena-

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