Nav Canada says not enough air traffic controllers are women, minorities

Less than 25 per cent of the workforce at the Montreal control centre are women

Assil Bedewi loves the complex task of directing the movements of the dozens of aircraft that criss-cross her screen as they take off or come in for landing.

As an air traffic controller for Nav Canada, it’s her responsibility to ensure the planes swooping in and out of some of Canada’s busiest airports have a safe path to take off and land without crossing paths.

But while the 34-year-old is thriving in a job that’s regularly described as one of the world’s most stressful, she remains a minority in a field that’s largely still dominated by men.

According to Nav Canada, the private company that manages Canadian civil air navigation, less than 25 per cent of the workforce at the Montreal control centre are women.

It’s something they’re trying to change, in part by teaming up with Elevate, a volunteer-run network that promotes aviation careers for women.

Bedewi says she doesn’t know why more women aren’t flocking to a job that often pays six figures and only requires a high-school education, other than to assume they don’t know about it.

“It’s a matter of educating women to the fact that it’s a job out there that is available to them, about the possibility of all these great jobs that are out there,” she said.

On Friday, Nav Canada and Elevate offered reporters and school-aged children a tour of the gated red-brick building near Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport that is responsible for the entire airspace of Quebec, as well as parts of Nunavut and Eastern Ontario.

Lyne Moreau, the general manager of the Montreal Flight Information Region, said she hopes that more awareness about aviation careers is all it will take to attract more women and diverse candidates to a field that is traditionally male and white.

“One thing is, it’s not a well known job, people don’t know … what the job is, what an air traffic controller does,” Moreau said during the tour.

There’s also the reputation for stress, dramatized by Hollywood films that portray air traffic controllers as nervous wrecks, shouting into headphones as they scramble to avert near misses.

But while Bedewi and Moreau acknowledged that the job is stressful, they said it’s not the intense pressure-cooker portrayed in the movies.

Bedewi said that while tense situations do arise — usually when there’s bad weather or a plane has mechanical trouble — juggling multiple calls from pilots and supervisors has become second nature.

“At certain point it becomes automatic, and you’ve learned to have this kind of active listening to what’s going on around you,” she said, adding that controllers and pilots work as a team to bring aircraft in safely.

“Oftentimes, you don’t even realize you’ve just taken a message from a supervisor while you’re still doing the job.”

Inside the control centre, the prevailing atmosphere was of calm rather than chaos.

Workers sat in semi-darkness, murmuring quietly to one another as they stared at the myriad of blips and lines moving across their screens.

Scaffolding ran overhead — due to repair work to improve soundproofing and lower the sound levels of an already quiet workspace, Moreau says.

“(Employees) need to have a high level of focus as soon as they’re sitting in position, so we’re very careful with distraction on our sites,” she said, adding that workers are required to take breaks every hour or two to ensure they stay fresh.

While little prior education is required, Moreau acknowledged the job isn’t for everyone.

She credited the company’s intense, nearly two-year training program for weeding out those whose aren’t suited.

The best candidates, she said, show laser-like focus, the ability to view things three-dimensionally, and, most of all, quick thinking.

“With airplanes, they’re moving in the sky and you can’t stop them,” she said.

“The idea of (saying) ‘I’m not sure what to do, can I pause,’ you don’t have that luxury.”

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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