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YYJ’s holiday heroes work around the clock to keep planes safe

Christmas is just another day at the office for the folks at Victoria International Airport
A Boeing 737 MAX taxis down the runway at Victoria International Airport as it prepares to take off on Thursday, Dec. 15. (Austin Westphal/News Staff)

The holiday season is a special time of year for many, but for some it doesn’t really appear all that different - even on Christmas.

At Victoria International Airport, the holiday season is an especially busy time for the staff who work to ensure that travellers have a safe and pleasant experience.

With an increase in the number of flights coming in and out of the airport as more people travel to be with their families and loved ones or go on vacation, air traffic controllers have to work diligently to ensure the safety and efficiency of all aircraft operations.

“A lot of people, I don’t think, really think about this job,” Jason Grist, Victoria air traffic unit operation specialist, told Black Press Media. “Nobody sees us … we’re just kind of in the background.”

For Grist, Christmas is just like any other day at the office.

“People often think that Victoria is a sleepy little airport and it can be quiet. But when it gets busy, it’s super-complicated,” he said.

To handle the greater volume of traffic during the holidays, Grist said the air traffic controllers at Victoria International Airport may work longer shifts and use a variety of tools and technology to track and communicate with aircraft, which includes radar to monitor the movement of planes in the air and providing pilots instructions and updates on their flight plans.

In addition to managing the flow of air traffic, controllers in the tower are also responsible for ensuring that all aircraft in the sky are properly spaced and separated, and that the pilots of those aircraft are following the correct flight paths and procedures.

Grist said it’s especially important during the busy holiday season, when there may be more planes in the sky and far less room for error.

“What makes Victoria challenging, in particular, is the mix of traffic,” he said. “From little Cessnas flying circuits, to high-speed military jet traffic, to helicopters, to light, medium and heavy category aircraft that all have to be spaced differently – it can become tricky. We also have three crossing runway configurations and we have a taxi way that goes across two of those runways. At the same time, we can have 10 or 15 different things going on at once just in ground control. And then there’s inner tower control and outer tower control. There’s a lot going on. One mistake and it could be catastrophic.”

On top of that, winter means that air traffic controllers may also have to deal inclement weather or other unexpected events that can impact the airport’s operations, Grist added.

While Christmas day itself is typically slow in terms of air travel, Grist said it can present it owns challenges for air traffic controllers, like remaining alert and aware.

“There’s always a push to maintain vigilance,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes when there’s absolutely no planes at the airport if weather is really poor, for instance, to sit and stare at an empty radar screen or just stare at the runways.”

Grist may have Christmas day off this year because it happens to fall on a Sunday, one of his days off. But the veteran air traffic controller of nearly 26 years is no stranger to spending Christmas inside Victoria’s control tower. While working on Christmas may not be ideal, he said it’s all part of the job.

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Austin Westphal

About the Author: Austin Westphal

Austin Westphal is the newest member to join the Saanich News team.
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