4 Min Read


by Philippe Domogala

IFATCA Industry Partner Coordinator

When we think about IFATCA conferences, particularly the memorable ones, Cairo, Egypt, in 1981 certainly springs to mind. It was the first time IFATCA held a conference on the African continent, and the expectations were high. It was also a few months before the famous PATCO strike in the USA, which saw a tragic outcome for those involved. But in that spring of 1981, spirits were high as we had the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on air traffic controllers’ working conditions improvements to celebrate.

The author at the 1981 conference. On the right is N. Ryad, chairman of the Conference Organising Committee.

At the time of the conference, Egypt was planning a new, modern ATC centre in Cairo. The contract had been awarded to Thomson CSF (which would later become Thales). The new IFATCA President, Harri Henschler, used his opening speech to make a point to the representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Minister of Transport: “It is a waste of money to plan and to introduce new ATC systems without the full knowledge and cooperation of the national Member Association”. The Minister replied, “Let me assure you that we appreciate the significant role of ATCOs, and my ministry has established a system whereby lavish incentives are currently paid to all controllers.” It seems that nothing much has changed since then: even today, problems are often ‘solved’ by paying more money to controllers instead of fixing the systemic problems.

Another memorable development from the 1981 conference was USA Member Association PATCO discussing the possibility of a strike. While there were concerns about the legality of such an action, PATCO representatives were convinced they would prevail and that their demands would ultimately be met. Unfortunately, the outcome was quite different. A more detailed account of the build-up and aftermath can be found in IFATCA’s 100 Years of ATC history book.

Left to Right: W. Robertson, CATCA President; David E. Siegel, PATCO Regional Vice-President; and Eric Staples, CATCA Secretary/Treasurer

On the technical side, the 1981 conference had a very large technical exhibition. Siemens had planned to demonstrate their new radar display and had shipped one to Egypt. Unfortunately, they underestimated the paperwork to bring such equipment into the country. The radar display was blocked by customs, who wanted to charge them a substantial import tax, even for the few days of the conference. It took a while to solve this, and the Organizing Committee even enlisted the minister’s help! They finally got the OK on the last day of the conference to release the equipment to the technical exhibition. But when Siemens went to retrieve it, it had disappeared from the warehouse.

Dutch company Philips was heavily involved in ATC at the time and used the conference to introduce the new “4th generation” Voice Recording System for ATC. The system enabled 11, 22, 33, or 44 channels to be recorded on one unit, but as you can see from the photo, it still took up a substantial amount of space.