From cabin crew to air traffic controller
Alexandra Tomescu worked for two years as a cabin crew at Qatar Airways. She returned to Romania exactly 2 years and 3 months later, as her homesickness was continuously growing. The aviation “bug” was still there though, so, shortly after her cabin crew career ended, Alexandra gives the Air Traffic Controller test and goes to Miami for a 5 month training program at PanAm International Flight Academy. Today, Alexandra Tomescu is an Air Traffic Controller at the Sibiu International Airport.
I had the pleasure to meet Alexandra Tomescu many years ago, on a flight to KUL (Kuala Lumpur). I found, during that flight and layover site (staying at the hotel overnight) Alexandra to be not only a trustworthy colleague but a friend also. Although a petite cabin crew, she proved to have a big heart and a strong, but pleasant, personality. Years after, I was delighted to find out that, although she left behind this profession, she built her career up inside the aviation, as an air traffic controller.
How did you become a cabin crew? Where do the beginnings of your itinerary in aviation lay?
After I have graduated International Economic Relations at the ASE, I wished for a job in “International Logistics”. Twice a week I used to buy a newspaper where there were job advertisements and at some point, I saw the recruitment advertisement – Open Day – for Qatar Airways. I clipped the newspaper ad and thought it was worth a try, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wished for, although I, later on, joked that it was in fact the same field, only it was international logistics of the passengers.
I always liked travelling and so I thought it was a great opportunity to see the world, to get to know so many people, to discover their history, religion and customs and even get paid for it. What could be better than that? After the interview, where about 300 candidates summoned initially (if not more, because the hotel’s auditorium was full) I found myself to be one of the 23 fortunates, later on I was contacted for the confirmation and finally for signing the contract. I proceeded in this profession for two years, to be more accurate, 2 years and 3 months, 2 months being the training period at that time (December 2005 – March 2008).
What were you thinking of when taking off?
Take-off is my favourite of all of flight’s phases: a little adrenaline and the ferment of arriving at the destination, the adventure of discovering, each time, brand-new things.
Which was your favourite destination?
Out of the ones I saw when working for Qatar, there were two: in Europe – Switzerland and in Asia – Kuala Lumpur. Without exaggerating, besides culture and scenery in Kuala Lumpur, I think I particularly fell in love with it mostly because of the crew members I was flying with then, that particular flight you mentioned when you talked about how we met ! I really had a great time there, especially since it’s been an almost 5 days stay, if I remember correctly. Today, things have changed. I revisited some of my destinations in Asia, and recently got to see Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and been deeply impressed by Singapore. It truly is the pearl of Asia!
What are your best flying memories ?
There are many beautiful memories. It would take too long to talk about each of them. But as a rule, the most beautiful flight experiences were those where your crew was homogeneous, where you got on well with everyone, teamwork was natural, and communication was as natural as if you knew each other for a lifetime. With such a crew, a demanding flight was becoming pleasant and passed swiftly, and once arrived at the destination, if there was a layover, you would walk and have fun like old friends do.
Why did you swap profession?
The cabin crew profession is very beautiful and as Sasha, my Safety & Security instructor said, if flying gets in your blood, it’s difficult to get rid of it. Those who think being a cabin crew is easy, are very wrong. It is a very demanding job, both physically and mentally. You have a very chaotic schedule, flying at all hours, varying in duration, you travel the world back and forth, cutting across several time zones, you have to know very well everything you have learned during training, but, the most demanding of all, to satisfy all passengers requests with a smile on your face and according to a certain standard. Passengers do not care that you are there first of all for their safety and that serving them only comes after, on the contrary, they are mostly interested in service.
There have been flights where the area designated to me consisted of 75 passengers, each having their own needs and demands. In addition to this, the biggest sacrifice you make is your personal life. It’s hard to be so far away from home (home being your base, for that is your new home), to live your life on the plane and inside hotels and have a normal personal life. This job asks for sacrifices, and starting a family is the first. I considered this job couldn’t take me very far on a professional or personal level and felt that, that kind of future wasn’t what I wished for.
I encourage all those who wish to travel the world to embrace this profession for a few years, but they should also know when to stop. It is difficult to return back home and start your life from scratch, professionally speaking, because most companies ask for experience in a particular area and, even though thrilled that you have worked abroad, in a big company with many nationalities, they will inevitably prefer whoever has experience in their field.
I decided to change something in my life with my head, not with my heart … And to reinforce what I said above, after returning back home, only after 3 months of interviews at various companies, I managed to get a job as assistant manager. It was not what I dreamt of, but I had to start somewhere. Knowing that I could do more, and wishing to do it, I did my best to find something more competitive and challenging. And at some point, I found out about the air traffic controller job exam (FEAST test developed by Eurocontrol in Brussels – for those who wish to know more) which I can proudly say I passed, being the 3rd out of 400 candidates.
Congratulations! What does your current job involve?
I love my current job and barely see myself doing anything else. It is obvious that aviation got into my blood and even if I’m not travelling as often as I did while being a cabin crew, I get to see planes almost every day. I say almost every day because I work shifts 12/24/12/48, so, one every four days I don’t work. The air traffic controller profession is very beautiful, but also very demanding, not in vain they consider it to be the most stressful job in the world. As the name suggests, it mainly involves tracking and routing airplanes, preventing collision between airplanes both in air and on the ground, between airplanes and other machineries and to maintain the safe flow of air traffic in the space assigned. It involves both landings and take-offs, plus directing other aircraft in my area of responsibility. To have an idea, my area of responsibility is represented by a cylinder, 60 km in diameter, and 11000 feet (about 3500 meters) in height.
It is a very complex job, it demands excellent distributive attention, immediate responsiveness and making the right decisions in a very short period of time, responsibility being huge. We carry the responsibility for the entire journey of an airplane, from the moment the engines starts for the take-off, to the moment you arrive safely at your destination and engines stop. Pilots take care of the proper operation of an airplane, we handle safety, giving instructions for the routes to be followed, altitudes and procedures. This is the responsibility an air traffic controller has. As I already said, it is a complex job and there would be a lot to explain but hope to have made myself clear with the brief description above.
What can you tell us about the training stage in Miami?
If at Qatar Airways in 2 months I “graduated” 7 training courses: waiter, bartender, chef, policeman, fireman, nurse and human resources, the initial air traffic controller training lasted five months at the PanAm International Flight Academy. It definitely cannot be compared to the cabin crew training course in terms of complexity. For 2 months, we studied theory: aviation law, meteorology, navigation, navigation equipments, aircraft characteristics, phraseology, Air Traffic Management, human factors and briefing.
After the first month of theory, we began with the simulator also, direction giving exercises, similar to real life. In the beginning, exercises were simple, with 3-4 airplanes and in time, difficulty increased, reaching 20 aircraft with both departures and arrivals within 30 minutes, without any mistakes. In fact, this is the most important part: the simulator, because it teaches you how to deal with real traffic, both in normal and extraordinary situations and / or emergencies. Obviously, when one theory module ended, we would have a written examination and in the end we had a practical exam on the simulator, consisting of a normal directing exercise combined with extraordinary and / or emergency.
Divided between learning and having fun, during the 5 months in Miami I have also built beautiful friendships, for a lifetime, I hope. After returning in the country, a week’s course of Flight Dispatcher followed, concluded with a written test examination. A month later, I had to once again give all theoretical examinations at the Romanian Civil Aviation Authority, and only after that acquired the license of apprentice air traffic controller. An extra two months period of simulators followed and after that, I started this internship period in real traffic directing. 6 months of internship later, I had the AACR exam again, this time, the Examination commission arriving at the location. The examination consisted of a written test comprising all subjects, but made specifically for that particular area and after that, they observed the real traffic routing of aircraft. Only afterwards did I receive the air traffic controller authorization , with full one year rights. Every year we must deal with extraordinary situations and / or emergency on the simulator and have to undertake a written and practical re-examination.
The Flight Dispatcher ,at least level 4 ICAO English Language certificate and medically fit class III certificate are also repetitive check-ups. In conclusion: a complex process and an ongoing training, as the profession itself.
Was the information acquired during the cabin crew training course helpful for your training in Miami?
They are completely different professions, even though they both belong to the aviation field, consequently, information acquired during the flight attendant training course didn’t help much, during my training in Miami.
What’s atmosphere like in a control tower, compared to a plane?
If I have to refer to the people you work with, it is totally different. Inside the tower, there’s a handful of people, usually the same during each shift, consequently, friendships are closer and you get to know others very well, while on the plane you barely fly 2 or 3 times with the same people. During breaks, the atmosphere is relaxed but otherwise everyone is very focused on what is to be done and you must be authoritative and in control. There’s no room for hesitation or babble, and pilots must follow the instructions you give. And there’s also no room for “Sorry”, as opposed to a flight attendant’s approach.
Which of the two professions would you recommend to your child?
First of all, it depends on the child’s personality and what they like. Based on this, I would recommend one of these jobs or none. They both shaped me and helped me become who I am today, I think they both offer very much, but it depends on what one really expects from life and the limits they set for themselves. Aviation truly gives you wings …