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Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en route centers. Their work can be stressful because maximum concentration is required at all times. Night, weekend, and rotating shifts are common.
Despite limited employment growth, about 2,400 openings for air traffic controllers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Tower controllers direct the movement of aircraft and other vehicles, such as snowplows, on runways and taxiways. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the flow of aircraft and ground traffic in their area of responsibility. Most observe from control towers, managing traffic from the airport to a radius of 3 to 30 miles out.
Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center, where they monitor traffic within the entire national airspace. When they identify a bottleneck, they provide instructions to other controllers to help prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airports and for en route controllers.
Most air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en route centers. Many tower controllers and approach and departure controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings across the country, which typically are not located at airports.
Most controllers work in semidark rooms. The aircraft they control appear as points of light moving across their radar screens, and a well-lit room would make it difficult to see the screens properly.
Air traffic controllers must remain focused and react quickly to conditions that change frequently. Being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers may be stressful and exhausting. To prevent burnout, the FAA requires controllers to retire at age 56.
Most air traffic controllers work full time. The FAA regulates the hours that an air traffic controller may work. Controllers may not work more than 10 straight hours during a shift, which includes required breaks, and must have 9 hours of rest before their next shift.
In addition, prospective air traffic controllers must be U.S. citizens and must pass a medical evaluation, background check, and FAA preemployment tests, including the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA). They also must complete a training course at the FAA Academy and apply before the FAA's age cutoff.
Once hired, controllers typically complete on-the-job training that lasts more than 12 months. They also must pass a physical exam each year, a job performance exam twice a year, and periodic drug screenings.
Air traffic controllers typically need an associate's or a bachelor's degree. To qualify with an associate's degree, candidates must complete their studies in an AT-CTI program. A bachelor's degree may be in any field, including transportation, business, or engineering.
The FAA sets guidelines for schools that offer the AT-CTI program. AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that are designed to prepare students for a career in air traffic control. The curriculum is not standardized, but courses focus on subjects that are fundamental to aviation, including airspace, clearances, chart reading, and federal regulations.
After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they complete requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller. Developmental controllers begin their careers by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then may advance to positions within the control room that have more responsibility.
With additional training, controllers may switch from one area of specialization to another. For example, a controller may complete training to transfer from working in an en route center to an airport tower.
Air traffic controllers sometimes qualify through work experience instead of a degree. Candidates either need up to 3 years of progressively responsible generalized work experience that demonstrates the potential for learning and performing air traffic control work or must have specialized work experience in a military or civilian air traffic control facility.
Detail oriented. Controllers must be able to concentrate while multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with different pilots at the same time.
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $129,750 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $71,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $185,990.
The salaries for development controllers increase as they complete successive levels of training. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the salaries for more advanced controllers who have completed on-the-job training varies with the location of the facility, the complexity of the flight paths, and other factors. A full explanation of the pay ranges for air traffic controllers can be found on the FAA Pay & Benefits page.
Although air traffic is projected to increase in the coming years, the satellite-based Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is expected to allow individual controllers to handle more air traffic. As a result, the demand for additional air traffic controllers should be somewhat limited over the projections decade.
Air traffic controllers are responsible for the safe coordination of flights from pushback to arrival. They are a ground based service whose primary objective is to safely facilitate the movement of air traffic, prevent aircraft collisions, as well as providing any other information a pilot may require. Find out more about air traffic controllers here.
The Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) is a continuous, recorded broadcast, which provides information such as weather, active runway, runway state, NOTAMs and any other information that may be needed by Pilots. Typically a broadcast is coded with a reference 'Information' letter (Information Alpha) signifying the current version of an ATIS. Air traffic controllers will inform approaching aircraft of the current ATIS ('Information November is current') to ensure pilots have the information they need to carry out a safe landing.
Call signs are used by Air Traffic Control to denote a specific flight. These can differ from flight numbers in two respects. Some airline radio call signs are different from the airline's name, either for reasons of history or for easy understanding over the radio. Additionally, in recent years, flights have begun using alphanumeric call signs in order to avoid call sign confusion. For example, flight number British Airways 123 would use the call sign Speedbird 1PW, where "Speedbird" is the radio call sign and 1PW is the alphanumeric call sign. This helps avoid confusion over the radio, where two British Airways flights with similar numbers may be talking to the same air traffic controller.
Flight Information Regions and Upper Information Regions are geographic areas of air traffic control responsibility. The size of a FIRs and UIRs varies and is typically decided by the country, or countries, that the region covers. Oceanic airspace has its own classification as an Oceanic Information Region.
The exact routing a flight will take filed with air traffic control authorities, including specific waypoints the flight will pass over. A flight plan will typically be filed prior a flight by either a pilot or dispatcher. Flight plans are usually filed for IFR flights, with VFR flights only requiring a flight plan if they intend to cross an international border.
When a landing approach cannot be completed safely for any reason, an aircraft will initiate a go-around, which generally includes climbing to a pre-specified altitude and holding point while awaiting further instructions from air traffic control. There are various reasons for why a go-around may occur such as an aircraft ahead slow to vacate the runway or simply an unstable approach. Read more about how go arounds help keep flights safe.
Each flight is assigned a four digit code, known as a squawk, by air traffic control. This code is unique to the flight and helps ATC identify each flight. There are a few significant squawk codes, which immediately get the attention of air traffic control. For a longer discussion of squawk codes and emergencies, please see our discussion with a pilot and an air traffic controller. 7500: Hijack 7600: Radio Failure 7700: General Emergency
A Traffic Collision Avoidance System allows aircraft to communicate if equipped with a compatible transponder in order to prevent a mid-air collision. The TCAS warns pilots of traffic in the vicinity and can issue directives to help pilots maintain separation if flights come too close to one another.
A portmanteau of transmitter-responder, the transponder emits a radio signal based on an interrogation from an outside source, either air traffic control or another aircraft. In normal operation a pilot will be instructed by an air traffic controller to set a specific code on their transponder and when this happens the terminology used will be to 'squawk' a code e.g. "Speedbird 115 squawk 4552". 2b1af7f3a8