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What’s Yellowknife like for air traffic controllers?

For a small city, Yellowknife has a busy airport.

The city is a routine stop for rookie air traffic controllers, fresh out of training – and it’s a challenging place to work.

That’s according to Peter Duffey, the president of the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers’ Association.

Duffey recently paid a visit to Yellowknife to meet with the city’s controllers. This is what he told us.

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“Air traffic controllers like it up here. Everybody knows each other, it’s a small community. They enjoy the work that’s up here – it’s very challenging, the airport is very busy.

“For example, consider Yellowknife’s Back Bay. You’re dealing with essentially two airports.

“You have an airport with runways, that you see typical airplanes come and go on, then you have another airport based on a lake in the back that has a ton of airplanes coming and going from it.

“It’s one of the few places in Canada where you are literally working two different airports in the same thing, and that poses a mix of problems.

“The other thing is the diversity of aircraft. You have everything from Twin Otters on floats to 737s.

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“If you contrast that to something like Toronto Pearson, it’s all basically the same kind of airplane at that airport. So different airplanes, doing different speeds, means a lot of different challenges for the folks up here.

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“They will train in a regional school for about six months, give or take, in a city like Edmonton. Then they’ll come up here and they’ll be, for lack of a better word, an apprentice for a year. Somebody will sit behind them and watch what they’re doing.

“At the end of that, if they’re satisfied with your performance and what you’re doing, you’re granted a licence by Transport Canada, and you become a full-fledged air traffic controller.”

Yellowknife's control tower
Yellowknife’s control tower. Photo: Peter Duffey.

“Staying here in Yellowknife for five to six years is probably the norm. We’ve got one gentleman who’s been here over 20 years. You have to stay a minimum of three years and after that, some people are looking to go.

“There’s a bubble. Once you get around the six or seven-year mark, seems if people get there without leaving, they’re content to stay for a while.

“I would be just fine in a place like this. This is the hub for the Northwest Territories, you’re talking probably in the neighbourhood of 50,000 to 70,000 movements per year – and a lot of that is cargo. (I started in North Bay, northern Ontario. I’ve been in Toronto for the balance of my career, which is about 23 years.)

“Nationwide, right now, we’re challenged with staffing. It’s a great career to get into, we highly recommend it and we’re constantly recruiting new people.

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“For a place like Yellowknife your salary would start at around $70,000 and max out at around $100,000 a year. Our medical benefits are as good as you’re going to find in most places. We have a very solid pension plan, and we have 48 locations across the country you can move to, as you move up in seniority. (Be aware, your first posting could be in any of dozens of destinations across Canada.)

“Without sounding too simple, it’s a really cool job.

“Everybody knows about a control tower, but the majority of our members do not work in control towers – they sit in front of radar screens in very dark rooms, in very big buildings.

“I liken it to playing a very challenging video game that changes by the minute.

“You talk to any air traffic controller in this country and they will tell you they love their job.”

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