Jean Shen (沈啟) began her first job in the dark, with her eyes fixed on the radar for hours as she carefully guided the tiny dots on the monitor — each representing an airplane — through the labyrinthine flight network in the skies above Taiwan.
“It’s a matter of lives, thousands of lives,” the new director-general of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) said of her first five years serving as an air traffic controller.
Shen, 63, was sworn in yesterday as the first woman to head the administration in its 65-year history.
Shen, who is also the first CAA director-general to climb the agency’s ranks from the ground up, has spent the past 40 years working in a field traditionally dominated by men, many of whom are retired air force pilots.
“I don’t really see myself as a woman in terms of style,” the grandmother of two said. “I prefer taking decisive action.”
Shen became a section chief in 1996 and director of Air Navigation and Weather Services in 2007, a post she held until taking over from Yin Cheng-pong (尹承蓬) as director-general.
Besides her intimate knowledge of the business and her outgoing personality, Shen is best known for her leadership of a NT$4.4 billion (US$144.3 million) project to automate Taiwan’s air traffic control system.
The high-tech network, which employs a global positioning system (GPS) instead of the traditional ground-based navigation infrastructure, went into service late last year after more than 10 years of planning.
The first of its kind in East Asia, the new system has fundamentally changed the way air traffic controllers work, leading to easier operations and, above all, a better working environment.
“We no longer need to stare at the radar inside a dim room,” said Mao Hsiu-ju (毛修如), a 41-year-old controller who has been working in air traffic control for 19 years. “I guess there is no more feeling of being ‘the lady in the tower.’”
The project, which allows for more precise coordination of aircraft performance, flight information, weather conditions and runway usage, was also part of Taiwan’s bid to obtain inclusion in the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), which it achieved last year.
The organization, an observer in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has more than 56 members globally who are responsible for supporting 85 percent of the air traffic worldwide.
CANSO membership is considered a significant milestone in the nation’s aviation history, as it has been seeking ICAO access for several years. However, Taiwan’s bid for ICAO membership has long been frustrated by opposition from Beijing.
According to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, Taiwan’s advanced Flight Information Region (FIR) service has enabled the country to become an aviation hub in the Asia-Pacific region.
This means there is more sharing of flight information among Taipei and other major cities in the region such as Fukuoka, Manila, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Shen said.
The CAA discussed ways to further boost the partnership with Fukuoka in March, she said, adding that the next step will be the establishment of closer relations with Hong Kong.
Shen said she was “really surprised that they asked me” to take the new job, because “I am old.”
However, Shen said the job would allow her to continue her life-long pursuit of learning new things.