Laura Downey

IASA had the pleasure of interviewing Laura in June 2019 regarding her role as an Air Traffic Controller with the IAA.


What attracted you to a career in aviation? Did you always want to be an Air Traffic Controller?

I grew up close to Baldonnel and I used to see the planes flying overhead. I started asking questions about the different types of planes I saw, and because of that I originally wanted to be a pilot. I went to DCU to do the Aviation Management course and then had a change of mind and that’s how I ended up in Air Traffic Control. When I was in the Aviation Management degree, I did an internship in my third year and I knew 9-5 wasn’t for me so that’s when I looked into other possibilities and came across the idea of Air Traffic Control.


Did you complete a degree before pursuing your career? Has this degree benefited you in your career?

I completed the Aviation management degree and started my Air Traffic Control training in September after I completed my final exams. My degree has benefitted me in certain areas of the training. It gives you a very broad knowledge of aviation which you can bring into some areas of your training particularly when you learn the basics like regulations.


What was involved in the application process to obtain a place on the IAA Student Controller Programme?

The initial application you do online. You need to have completed your Leaving Cert and have passed two higher level subjects, as well as being 19 years of age. From there, you go through a screening stage and you do two aptitude tests. Again, you’re screened and you get an email if you’ve been successful to progress to the next stage. Then there’s a group interview process and if you’re successful in this stage you move onto a final individual interview. From starting the first aptitude test to knowing I had gained a place on the course, it took about 6 to 8 months. The final interview was in June and I found out that July that I would begin my training that September.


What training was involved in order to become an Air Traffic Controller?

The training process is based in Shannon so you have to be committed to moving down to Shannon. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to come up and work in the Dublin Control centre straight away but when you complete your training you may be sent to either Dublin, Cork or Shannon. The training from sitting in a classroom to working by myself took 14 months. Firstly, you do a lot of classroom work before moving onto simulator training and then when I came back up to Dublin I had to learn the Dublin procedures which was more simulation work. From there, you complete ‘on the job’ training where you will sit at a control desk and there’s a qualified controller sitting beside you and you have to do around 200 hours of this type of supervised training. You then complete a ‘unit competency’ test and then you are allowed to work alone. It is very intense and there’s no guarantee you’ll pass everything, but the hard work is definitely worth it.


What does your job entail? What does your average day look like?

I work in Dublin Approach radar. I control planes that are landing into Dublin which involves sequencing them, putting them in line and spacing them correctly. This must be done not only in a safe manner but also in an efficient way especially in Dublin due to the volume off traffic. The average day can vary due to my roster. So my roster consists of 2 late duties, a day duty, an early duty, and a night duty so you see every single part of the day during your week. In terms of working, the maximum time we can work in a position is 2 hours before we have to get a 30-minute break. When progressing in the career there are many options. If I wanted to gain another rating I would have to go back to Shannon for a few weeks and complete either an Area Rating course or a Tower course. You would complete a few weeks in Shannon before coming up to Dublin to learn their procedures. The way Controllers are trained is that you obtain a general Air Traffic Control rating which allows you to work anywhere in the world, but you also have to be trained to the unit at which you work at.


What do you love about your job?

I love that every day is different from the people you work with, the wind can affect your job as you have to carefully plan how you will get the required spacing between aircraft, and also new situations that you may have never faced before. I also love that it’s not an office job. I love how at the weekend I’m not getting work-related emails. Once you take the headset out and walk out the door, you don’t have to think about work until you’re in next.


What is the greatest challenge with being an Air Traffic Controller?

The greatest challenge is the people. Because it’s a very high stressed environment at times, you can see the best and the worst in the people that you work with. You see people very stressed but then you walk out and you can have a laugh with them in the tv room. It can be challenging getting used to the people around you and learning how they operate is very hard.


Have you ever felt restricted within your job because of your gender?

No, I haven’t, my gender hasn’t played a huge part in the job for me. I’m still relatively new so I wouldn’t say it’s anything to do with my gender.


What steps do you think need to be taken to encourage more girls and women to pursue a career within the aviation industry?

I think initiatives like this is what is needed which is why I said yes to taking part. It’s about getting it out there that there are women in these jobs and that there is a place for women in the industry. I think the Aviation Management course is really useful as well as it’s encouraging more girls to go into Aviation and get involved in the business side of the industry from a young age.


What advice would you give any girl/woman considering a career as an Air Traffic Controller?

Have confidence in yourself! And that’s not just to become an Air Traffic Controller, it’s in anything in life. I think as women we put ourselves down and second guess ourselves, but if you have confidence in yourself, people around you will also have confidence in you. You can do it, the only person stopping you is you!


Where do you see yourself In 10 years?

Hopefully still in Air Traffic Control. I love my job and I would love to get a second rating within Dublin. I would also like to complete my Master’s at some point.