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Columnist
Air traffic controller talks about 'pushing tin'
In Transit
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/28/2010 12:01 AM

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For an air traffic controller, Jeff Richards is surprisingly relaxed.

If I spent my days gazing at a screen, directing airplane after airplane to its destination knowing mistakes could be fatal, I'd be a little wired.

The Naperville husband and father of twins said it's all relative.

"When you're young, the stress isn't that evident, you kind of crave it," said Richards, 46. "When you get to 20 years (in the job) you'd rather come in and have mundane days where it's not complete and utter chaos. Where there's not the excitement of having to deal with weather."

Richards works out of Chicago Center in Aurora, which handles aircraft 40 miles out of O'Hare International Airport across seven states. He also heads up the union at Chicago Center and is an alternate regional vice president with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Here's what he had to say about his job.

Q. Why did you pick this career?

A. I always had the aviation bug. I got my pilot's license in high school. When I was a kid, I used to visit my aunt in Fort Worth. That's when Dallas Forth Worth International Airport was being built. She'd take me there and we'd take the tram out to look at the planes.

(Later, Richards took the air traffic controllers' test and scored high enough to go to Oklahoma City for training.) There was a big auditorium and the instructor said, 'look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you will be there in six weeks. They washed out about 66 percent.

Q. What makes a good air traffic controller?

A. A Type A personality. Someone who always likes to be in charge, someone who doesn't mind making decisions and is quick on their feet.

Q. What do you like about your job?

A. I like that no day is the same. Every day is different. There are days when there's no weather and light traffic and it does get mundane. Then. you can come back from break and it will just be crazy - depending on how traffic is flowing across the country.

Q. What's a bad day?

A. A bad day is when there's weather and airplanes won't go where you want them to. We're trying to maximize the airspace and the efficiency of the airport. But you can run up against the wall trying to get as many arrivals into O'Hare or as many departures out as you can, based on weather.

It may look easy - just tell the pilots how to get from here to there. But there's all kinds of things to consider, especially as the airplanes get closer in line with each other.

Q. Have you handled any celebrity planes?

A. I've handled Air Force One.

Q. Air traffic controllers came under fire recently when one at John F. Kennedy International Airport brought his children into work and allowed them to talk to pilots. What's your opinion?

A. I think it was overblown. The kid wasn't making the decisions. But in this day and age, I don't condone it and the guy needs to be reprimanded. But it's not like the kids were left alone in the tower for 20 minutes while everyone went to get coffee.

Q. What's the downside of the job?

A. Air traffic controllers because of stress have a higher incidence of alcoholism, diabetes and heart disease.

Q. What's the work atmosphere like?

A. It's like any normal workplace where people joke. But everyone knows there's a task at hand and when we're busy people focus on the job they have to do. There's some eccentric individuals.

Q. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the job?

A. Years.

Flotsam and jetsam

• Metra will offer extra train service on the afternoon April 2, Good Friday.

• The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has updated its Northeastern Illinois Regional Bikeways and Trails Plan. For info, call (312) 454-0400 or visit cmap.illinois.gov.