Fiona Hough, Air Traffic Control Professional

Fiona Hough clearly is a dedicated professional with a distinct eagerness to help air transport to recover quickly. In the time that we have known each other, I realised that she is an articulate, precise and thoughtful individual, who cares about aviation. Her consideration for the industry’s future comes across very well in conversations around the events of the past year. Having previously worked closely with many air traffic controllers and with air traffic service providers, I was able to connect quickly and rationally with Fiona. Still, I quickly recognised that she shares a degree of enthusiasm on matters related to quality of service, learning and development and employee wellbeing. In fact, I am now more aware about her credibility after noticing how respected she is among her fellow professionals and colleagues. 

Fiona began her Air Traffic Control life working as an Assistant for National Air Traffic Services in the late 80s. As she pointed out during her interview, she had an exciting role “playing the pilot part during simulation exercises” at the ATC College in Hurn, Dorset. She fondly recalls these early days of her Air Traffic career path. In particular, Fiona remembers how she spent certain significant birthdays – like her 21st birthday – either attending interviews or studying, instead of celebrating. However, any sacrifices were worth the effort as these experiences allowed her to progress professionally.    

After serving for a lengthy 8-year period in Manchester’s ATC sub-centre and Tower and by then accomplishing a considerable number of relevant qualifications, she moved on. In transition, Fiona became an ATC Instructor at the end of 2000. Noticeably, she returned to Hurn, the place where she took her first steps in air traffic. “. . . here I was,  a classroom instructor, simulator instructor and (exam) assessor. It was during this time that I discovered how much I enjoyed training. Not so much the technical aspects, but more the interaction with people. Seeing the ‘light bulb’ moments within students as they finally grasped aspects of the job and watching their confidence grow as a result”.

A career with plenty of international exposure

Fiona’s career venture did not stop there. She emigrated to Canada to join NAV CANADA under their experienced controller programme. Though this was an adventure, it turned out to be relatively short-lived experience. The Canadian way of working proved to be very different from the European practises. However, this is common for organizations not to work in the same way between regions and after 18 months, she decided to return home. Nonetheless, as this door closed, another door opened. Fiona returned to England and shortly thereafter acquired another Instructor’s contract, mainly to train people from other countries. “This was a lovely contract which brought me back to instructing within the industry once again. Despite the many language challenges, I found it fascinating working with individuals of different nationalities, learning about their own country and culture”, Fiona reflects.  

The next phase in her career journey was exciting and remarkable. A period that on one hand strengthened Fiona’s professional skills and expertise particularly in the training field. On the other, allowed her to augment her private life. During the interview, she told me: “I left the UK for 3 months, and ended up staying in Sweden for 9 years!” She joined Entry Point North in Sweden, where she worked in a variety of training roles, including Product Supervisor. Looking back, Fiona speaks extraordinarily about her prospects to teach students from different nationalities as well as those from the Scandinavian setup. “At EPN I was fortunate to teach students from a wide variety of different countries,” she pointed out positively.

Giving interesting answers to aviation themed questions

Interestingly, considering Fiona’s service credentials and ample experience, I wanted to find out more about her viewpoint on particular air transport aspects and I put to her a few themed questions.

What do you think are currently the main challenges for the aviation industry? 

Remote Towers “Since the first Remote Tower service came into being in Sundsvall Sweden in April 2015, we have been seeing more and more introduced to contend with both low and medium level traffic. London City Airport is the first to have approval in the UK while HIAL are working on implementing the concept,” Fiona remarked. “Remote towers are definitely changing the way ATC is handled at small airports with low traffic levels. Clearly, there is a big economic advantage to not having employees located on the ground on site for only a handful of aircraft per day. Scandinavian Mountains Airport commenced operations and as the first airport designed to operate by a remote ATC tower from the outset,” she explains.

DronesOver the last few years we have seen a rapid growth in the use of drones. There have been reports of near misses with aircraft in the vicinity to airports, as well as abuse by recreational users. Now it has been necessary to define rules for use within the UK, which are detailed in the Air navigation Order,” she declared to me.

Fiona continued the discussion on industry challenges by giving me her views on a subject of major interest to her, which is Training.I think the ways in which people within our industry have had to adapt in order to continue working and delivering a service following the events in the past year, means that we have very quickly altered and shown that delivery of services is possible using previously inconceivable methods,” she said. “For this reason, I believe that the way we deliver aspects of training within the aviation industry will continue to push boundaries and is unlikely to go fully back to the way it was before”. She went on to say, “I think we will see far more online and blended learning, gamification, virtual classrooms and virtual instructor led training (VILT) as well as e-learning platforms. Integration of bite-size, mini / micro learning elements have been hugely popular and are recommended by Learning & Development organisations. So too has accessing learning via mobile phone,” she concluded on the training topic. Her final thoughts on the industry challenges was regarding Airspace Capacity and growing traffic levels. As Fiona explained, this is a matter always of concern within Europe.

What advice would you give to younger people who are considering following a career path in aviation?

The advice I would pass on to anyone who has a desire to enter a particular profession is to do your research, know what school qualifications you need for the job you would like to go for, study hard, apply and give it your best shot. There is nothing worse than looking back on life years later and wondering ‘What if’. If it does not work out, there are always other choices. A person should never live with regrets for the things they did not try,

In your opinion, can air travel recover quickly?

Our airlines and aviation organisations need to be proactively gearing up their operations again in preparation for more freedoms. If a quick recovery were to take place, aviation organisations across the board would have to be actively working behind the scenes now; increasing staff numbers, organising and conducting refresher training within all areas, especially those linked to licencing validation, ramping up aircraft maintenance schedules, training new personnel across the board etc.” she clarifies”.

Remaining on this subject, Fiona continued, “It has been incredibly disheartening to see our vibrant industry crushed. Cargo carriers have been able to ride the crest of the wave of this storm without losses however; other major airlines have suffered on average 70 – 90% loss of revenue. It would be fantastic to revitalise our profession once again, this summer, especially for the millions of aviation workers across the globe whose lives have been affected. That said it is my personal belief that traffic figures and demand will not reach 2018/2019 levels for a number of years to come. We will see a gradual steady increase,” she ended.

What has really attracted me to write about Fiona’s fascinating career is the self-made element. I can associate with Fiona Hough’s story, having myself progressed through a professional journey based on merit. People with her record, passion for aviation and a determination to see the industry recover swiftly are exactly the professionals we need right now at this crucial point. Anyone who has so deep operational experience, wide multifaceted international exposure and continuous enthusiasm, can only make positive contribution in the reclamation of the air transport sector. Luckily enough for aviation, Fiona currently participates on diverse developmental projects and contributes in different ways supporting Safety and Wellbeing related activities. For me, her input and involvement will definitely play a big part on defining a well-structured road map for the future of aviation.

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