In control

Every day, Everita Elizabete Mietule and her team supervises, coordinates, and is responsible for all of the flights performed by the airBaltic fleet – their punctuality, safety, and also their passengers. As an instructor, she also trains new employees and leads and manages qualification courses for existing employees. In this interview, she gives Baltic Outlook readers a look behind the Operations Control Centre (OCC) door, giving them a completely different perspective on how the coordination of flights takes place. She also reveals how she maintains her femininity in such a masculine environment.

Being a flight operations controller (FOC) isn’t exactly every young girl’s dream. How did you arrive at such a career?

I was 14 years old when I decided I wanted to become a pilot. Seeing as the fulfilment of such a dream is very expensive, upon graduating from high school I decided to first try out the Transport Telematics and Radio Communications programme at Riga Technical University. There I earned a diploma in electrical engineering with a specialty in radio communications. With that diploma in my pocket, I applied for a job as an operations control duty assistant at airBaltic. I had to pass three job interviews, take a psychological test and a logic test, and also pass an English exam. I got the job, and I also became the only female flight operations controller, which was quite extraordinary even for the Baltic States at that time. I remember that the pilots were quite surprised at hearing a female voice over the radio. I’ve been in this department now for more than 12 years. And, what’s interesting is that I’ve never thought about becoming a pilot again. Life put me right in the place where I’m happy to be.

 

What exactly is flight operations?

Flight Ops, as we call it, is the central and direct point of communication between airBaltic and an aircraft. The Operations Control Centre consists of the FOC, the flight dispatchers, the duty supervisor, and the crew dispatchers. Our responsibility is to monitor airBaltic’s flights as well as to organise airBaltic’s fleet and guarantee its airplanes in accordance with our three main values: safety, punctuality, and passenger service. We provide support for our pilots before, during, and after their flights. We keep them informed about weather conditions, flights routes, the airplane’s technical condition, where to park the airplane, any necessary notes about passengers on the flight, and information about dangerous goods on board, if there are any. The FOCs work 24/7 and are available to pilots at all times. The OCC is also the main emergency centre, where all of the monitoring and organisation for emergency preparedness takes place. Perhaps the job sounds romantic, but it’s actually a very responsible position. How does the coordination of a flight take place in practice? On the day before a flight, the destination airport receives information about what aircraft airBaltic will be arriving with, how many seats on it, and how many

 

How does the coordination of a flight take place in practice?

On the day before a flight, the destination airport receives information about what aircraft airBaltic will be arriving with, how many seats on it, and how many passengers on the flight. When the pilots report to work, they print out the flight plan that has been prepared by the flight dispatchers. This includes the flight path and route that they’ll be following. All of the necessary information regarding passengers, baggage, weights, weather conditions, departure time, and so on is entered into the system. Then, taking all of that information into account, the system calculates the most efficient flight path to ensure an on-time arrival but also to conserve as much fuel as possible. Everyone always tries to fly at the highest possible flight level, because there the air is thinner and the plane can fly travel faster with the same fuel consumption. However, if there are restrictions along the flight path – say, because of crowded airspace or poor weather conditions – then the flight level or a part of the flight path is adjusted. We also inform the pilots if weather conditions at the destination have changed for the worse and the departure time has therefore been changed.

Working together with other OCC colleagues, we also coordinate the flow of transit passengers and inform pilots about the boarding process. We keep in close communication with the pilots until the airplane is airborne. During the flight we monitor all incoming information and reports, and if any of it is relevant to the present flight, we take care of anything that needs to be done. If the flight plan for the return flight has changed, or if any restrictions have been announced for its flight path, the FOCs get in touch with our captain and inform him or her about the new route, the minimum fuel level, and any other factors necessary for a safe flight back home. When the aircraft is approaching home base in Riga, we exchange information with the crew about arrival time, flight status, the number of transit passengers, the gate, the next flight, and so on. We work a lot with systems and computers, but we emphasise that our communication is always with people, because the company’s welfare is based on people’s well-being and emotions.


What are the requirements to become a flight operations coordinator?

A university degree in technology is desirable, but the basic requirement is that you’ve at least begun studying at a higher education institution. The FOC position demands a high level of responsibility, organisational skills, self-discipline, and quick, effective, analytical, and logical thinking. In addition to a university degree, new employees also undergo training, because no school teaches how to become a flight coordinator. When finally arriving at airBaltic, a new employee must pass a special theory course, which is followed by practical training, before he or she is completely ready to work as an FOC. New FOCs also spend time in Brussels, where the central air traffic control for Europe takes place, and there they become acquainted with how things look from the other side. Our FOCs are competent, knowledgeable, and educated employees with much experience – and broad experience – in aviation. They’re specialists you can count on, and they’re competent in areas ranging all the way from aircraft construction to flight plan analysis. FOCs work 24/7, weekends and holidays included. So, the airBaltic fleet and its passengers are in safe hands.
 
 
Your colleagues consider you to be very competent and demanding but also a considerate and sincere person with a good sense of humour and who truly loves her job. What is it that you like best about this work?

Most of all, I value the fact that this job is very important. The way in which I do my job gets reflected in all of the airBaltic processes, in all of its flights, and in the company’s performance as a whole. I cannot slack off or make mistakes in my job, because I won’t have the chance to fix those mistakes later. By putting my knowledge and experience to use, I must make the best and most effective decisions in a very short time. In addition, there’s no routine in our work, and it’s impossible to do this job if you don’t like it. It’s just unrealistic to get up at three in the morning to go to a job where you don’t want to be. But I really do like my job. The birds aren’t the only ones who are active and flying around early in the morning – the sky is always busy, even during the night.
 
 
Your energy and enthusiasm probably don’t allow you to sit still even when you’re not at work!

Even though aviation is my first love, it’s not my whole life. I was born with a strong and beautiful voice, so I also love to sing. Best of all, I love to sing with my friends around a campfire. My dear grandfather played the accordion, and I inherited it, so the next thing on my to-do list is to learn to play it. I grew up in Riga, but I’ve never considered myself a city girl. I love being in nature – hiking, off-road driving, boating. Volleyball is my passion, and I am also the biggest fan of my eldest brother, who competes in touring car races (he’s one of the leading drivers in the S1600 class). Two years ago I finished a calligraphy course. I like beautiful things, and I love making them myself, too. Even though more and more women are entering aviation, it’s still a very technical field, and you need to take care to not lose your femininity. So I wear dresses, plant flowers, and sing in order to keep my world in balance! BO