Air Traffic Controllers are typically employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They work within the National Airspace System (NAS), coordinating the movement of air traffic. They direct planes and regulate airport traffic. They also work for the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, VA. They oversee an entire operation. They respond to problems by creating a management plan to keep traffic levels manageable for employees who work at en route centers. Opportunities to become an air traffic controller are expected to grow, resulting from a need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation.
Air Traffic Controller Job Responsibilities
Air Traffic Controllers typically work forty hours a week. They rotate night and weekend shifts. During busy times they must work efficiently to ensure the safety of aircraft. They may serve in many roles under different titles. They are as follows:
- Terminal Controllers
- Terminal Radar Controllers
- Tower Flight Data Controller
- Clearance Delivery Controllers
- Ground Controllers
- Local Controllers
- Airport Tower Controllers
- En Route Controllers
- Radar Associate Controllers
- Terminal Radar Arrival Controllers
- Flight Service Specialists
Terminal Controllers are responsible for all planes that fly over an airport’s airspace. They organize the flow of aircraft. They typically work in the control tower and sometimes in the terminal radar approach control room (TRACON). They sequence arrival aircraft for landing. They issue departure and flight plan clearances. They control the movement of aircraft on the taxiways. They also handle flight data.
Terminal Radar Controllers monitor the aircraft’s movement on radar to manage aircraft arrivals and departures into the airport. They inform the pilots about issues such as weather constraints and runway conditions.
Tower Data Flight Controllers receive flight plans and process them by printing out a computer flight strip. The controller works closely with four other controllers: 1) the clearance delivery controller, 2) the ground controller, 3) the local controller, and the 4) departure controller to support the aircraft calling for clearance. For example, the clearance delivery controller issues the clearance; the ground controller manages the movement of the aircraft; the local controller issues the departure clearance; and the departure controller identifies the plane on radar and directs the plane‘s course.
Airport Tower and En route Controllers work in teams. They are assigned and are responsible for a sector of the traffic control center’s designated airspace. They coordinate air traffic arrivals and departures with two other controllers: 1) the Radar Associate Controllers and 2) the Terminal Radar Arrival Controllers. Radar Associate Controllers organize flight plans by rearranging time conflicts and changing flights paths or altitude. When there is a time conflict between two planes arriving into the airport, they delegate responsibility for the arrival of a plane to the next team. The Terminal Radar Arrival Controllers work closely with the local and ground controllers. They sequence airplane arrivals and issue an approach clearance to the pilot operating the aircraft. They direct the local and ground controllers. The local controller issues a land clearance; and the ground controller directs the plane to the gate.
Airport Tower and En route Controllers have to make quick decisions. They often control more than two planes at a time. They direct planes that are about to land and organize their landing approach. At the same they also provide information to pilots about the conditions of the airport and observe other planes entering the airport that are in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land.
Flight Service Specialists work in flight service stations. They provide pre-flight and in-flight weather information. They suggest routes, relay air traffic control clearances, assist pilots with emergency information, and coordinate searches for missing aircraft. They also provide airport advisory services. They are not involved in managing and separating aircraft.
Air Traffic Controller Training and Education Requirements
To become an air traffic controller, applicants who do not have prior experience, such as those from the general public, must take the FAA’s pre-employment test and meet certain qualification requirements according to Federal law. Air traffic controllers who have prior experience with either the Federal Aviation Administration or the Department of Defense as a civilian or veteran must be at least 30 years or younger to apply.
Applicants from the general public must have three years of consistent full-time work experience and have completed four years of college. Some years in college can be substituted for lack of work experience. For example, one year of undergraduate study can be substituted for at least nine months of work experience.
An applicant may also complete a course of study through the FAA’s Air Traffic Collegiate Training Institute (AT-CTI). The AT-CTI program offers two-year and four-year non-engineering degrees. The program offers courses in aviation and air traffic control.
The FAA Pre-Employment Test takes about eight hours to complete. It is administered on the computer. To take the test, there must be an open advertisement for air traffic controller positions. Applicants apply under the advertisement. They are chosen by the FAA administration to take the test. If there are more applicants than controller positions, applicants are selected randomly. All students who have enrolled in the AT-CTI program are guaranteed an automatic opportunity to take the pre-employment test. Once an applicant has achieved a qualifying score, candidates are granted medical and security clearance; and they are subject to drug screening. Candidates who become employees receive their training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
They endure twelve weeks of training. They take the following basic courses: airway system fundamentals, FAA regulations, controller equipment, and aircraft performance. After graduation, controllers are assigned to an air traffic control facility where they are classified as developmental controllers.
Air Traffic Controllers must have excellent communication skills. They must be able to clearly articulate and give the pilot directions. They must be intelligent and possess good memory. They must be able to make quick decisions and be able to concentrate in chaotic situations.
Air Traffic Controller Salary and Wages
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of Air Traffic Controllers in May 2008 was approximately $111,870. The highest ten percent earned more than $161,010, with the lowest ten percent earning $45,020. The average annual salary for a controller working for the federal government, which employs approximately 90 percent of all controllers, was $109,218 in March 2009.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Air Traffic Controller salaries are determined by the rating a facility receives. Through this rating system, the Air Traffic Control system classifies controller salaries. If a facility receives a higher rating, then this means higher salaries for controllers who work in that facility. Higher salaries create a higher demand from the controller to exercise keen judgment and decision-making ability.
Air Traffic Controllers receive a minimum of thirteen weeks of paid vacation and thirteen days of paid sick leave. They receive life insurance and health benefits. They are eligible to retire at the age of 50 with twenty years of service; or they can retire after twenty-five years of service. For controllers who reach the age of 56, there is a mandatory retirement for those who manage traffic.
Air Traffic Controller Certifications
To be certified to become a full air traffic controller, new controllers must complete all of their certification requirements within two to four years. Individuals with prior experience take less time to become certified. Controllers are expected to pass a physical exam and a job performance evaluation each year. Controllers who fail to become certified in a position or facility are dismissed from the training program.
Air Traffic Controller Professional Associations
Many Air Traffic Controllers are members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). The NATCA operates in nine regional boundaries set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The association provides facility representation. It develops partnership initiatives with the FAA on such issues involving alcohol testing, stress debriefings, and occupational safety and health. It recommends members to national committees. It offers special town meetings. It answers member’s questions concerning training failures, workers’ compensation, scheduling, and disciplinary conduct.