Nouf Al Afeefi became the first female Emirati air traffic controller in the United Arab Emirates in 2011. The bold yet humble 29-year-old also has a private pilot’s license. While she always knew she wanted to go into aviation from an early age, it took ambition and hard work to get there.
Her career journey started in 2007 with the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority. She graduated from high school as an ATC trainee, and went to New Zealand to obtain her air traffic control degree. She went on to train at the Sheikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre, while studying part-time for her master’s degree at City University of London in Air Safety Management.
While aviation is a male-dominated industry, especially in the Arab world, Al Afeefi encourages women to become a part of it. According to a 2018 article in The National, “of the 130,000 pilots who are employed globally, just 4,000 are women, which means they make up just 3% of the workforce. The board of the International Air Transport Association is also almost exclusively male.”
Al Afeefi currently works at the Sheikh Zayed Air Navigation Center at Abu Dhabi Airport as supervisor. While she initially faced discrimination, over time she garnered the respect of many men in the industry. The center is the busiest and most advanced air traffic control facility in the Middle East. It handles more than 2,200 air traffic movements between the eight international airports in the UAE on a daily basis, as well as aircraft crossing UAE air space, according to The National. Air traffic control is a busy field, but as Al Afeefi points out, “There is no room for mistakes.” She always has to be on her A-game, making sure flights take off and land safely, as lives are at stake.
Vogue Arabia spoke to the Abu Dhabi-born about breaking barriers and what it takes to join the aviation industry.
What do you love most about living in Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi is the most peaceful city, in my opinion; it’s very beautiful and full of opportunities. It’s a place where your dreams come true.
What attracted you to aviation?
My mother always inspired me to aim for the unexpected and achieve something that will challenge me and make me grow into a strong woman. I combined her wishes with my love for airplanes and found the perfect challenge for me: to learn about aviation and to become an air traffic controller (ATC).
What fears did you have about joining aviation?
It was challenging, yet I did not have any fears going in just based on which gender dominates the industry. I grew up around my brothers and I have a brother in the same field as well.
What led you into air traffic control?
Passion and a love for the challenges and responsibilities.
How do you stay focused in your role so that air traffic accidents don’t happen?
In order to become an ATC, we get intensive training for three years. An ATC should always be quick on their feet and always have alternative B, C, and D plans. Most importantly is sticking to procedure; it always requires teamwork while multitasking. An ATC has to walk into work knowing all the possibilities waiting to happen and figure a way to prevent errors with an open mind.
Describe any struggles and challenges you’ve faced being a woman air traffic controller in the Middle East.
Entering a male-dominated field is challenging, and at the same time ATC itself is a challenge. Night shifts, stress, dealing with men from different nationalities, pilots, and colleagues all smooth the environment with respect to my culture. All of this manages to balance itself out.
How does it feel to be the first Emirati female air traffic controller?
I’m very proud to represent my country and happy to break barriers. It’s a pleasure being a pioneer for all girls.
Why did you decide to become a pilot as well? Does it help you understand air traffic control better?
Of course it helps, but it was not the only reason I chose to fly. It was to fulfill my mother’s dream and enjoy my favorite hobby.
How have you overcome discrimination?
My family always believed in me and has given me the green light to pursue opportunities that come to me. But I have encountered colleagues who were against me being a woman ATC, but I took it as a challenge, which has made it even better than what I was looking to achieve. I’m not the kind of person who likes to stay put in my comfort zone.
You seem to want to live life to its full potential. What does success and living to your full potential look mean to you?
Living to your full potential is success to me. It’s having a goal and achieving it without stopping, and to remember to enjoy every bit of it. It’s all about having passion.
It’s important for all women to reach their full potential, but what strengths do Emirati women and Arab women bring to global feminine strength?
As Emirati women, we are always supported and encouraged, and believed in by HH Sheikha Fatima and our government. Because of this, we give our very best to prove ourselves and to show our appreciation.
March 8 is International Women’s Day and this year’s United Nations theme is: “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change.” What does this mean to you as a woman in aviation?
It’s a promise of a bright future for all women in the world.
How does it feel that the UAE and even Saudi Arabia are looking for women to fill the shortage of people entering into aviation training?
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are not filling the gaps with women. They are completing the aviation field with us. Together, men and women with their specific capabilities are completing the aviation shortages in the industry.
You’re getting married soon. Is your husband-to-be your number-one fan?
Yes, he is so proud of my achievements and so supportive as well. We complete each other even at work, because he is a pilot.