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What air traffic controllers do.

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that planes stay safe distances apart. Controllers f oordinate the arrival and departure of airplanes; issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots; monitor and direct the movement of aircraft, using radar equipment; authorize flight path changes; provide weather updates to pilots; alert airport response staff in the event of an aircraft emergency. Air traffic controllers' immediate concern is safety, but they also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of airplanes in and out of the airport, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor airplanes as they travel through the skies. There are three types of air traffic controllers: 1) tower controllers direct the movement of planes on the runway. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of planes on the runways and other parts of the airport. Most work from air traffic control towers; 2) radar approach/departure controllers ensure that planes traveling within an airport's airspace keep a minimum safe distance apart. This airspace is normally a 40-mile radius around the main airport. These controllers' primary responsibility is to manage the flow of airplanes coming in and out of the airport. These controllers work in buildings known as terminal radar approach control centers (TRACONs); 3) en route controllers monitor airplanes once they leave an airport's airspace. They work at any of the 21 air route traffic control centers located throughout the country.

Work Environment

Air traffic controllers held about 27,000 jobs in 2010. The vast majority of controllers -about 94 percent--worked for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or route centers. Many tower and radar controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings located across the country. Radar controllers often work in semi-dark rooms. The airplanes they control appear on their radar as blips moving across the screen. During busy times, controllers must work rapidly and efficiently while maintaining total concentration. Oftentimes, the mental stress of being responsible for the safety of airplanes and their passengers can be exhausting. As a result, controllers tend to retire earlier than most workers: those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age 50. In addition, controllers are required to retire at age 56.


Becoming a Controller

To become an air traffic controller, a person must be a U.S. citizen, complete an air traffic management degree from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified school, achieve a qualifying score on the FAA pre-employment test, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy. Controllers with previous air traffic control experience, such as from the military, may not need to complete the FAA education requirements. Those without previous air traffic control experience must be younger than 31 to become an air traffic controller. There are two main pathways to becoming an air traffic controller:

* Previous controller experience. Candidates with previous experience with the FAA or the U.S. Armed Forces are automatically eligible to apply for air traffic controller positions. They do not need to take the FAA preemployment test.

* AT-CTI degree. Those without previous experience must obtain an air traffic management degree through the FAA Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI). AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that teach courses in aviation and air traffic management. Candidates who complete an AT-CTI program of study are automatically eligible to take the FAA preemployment test. Applicants who pass the test can then become eligible to enroll in a two-month training course at the FAA Academy. After graduating from the academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they complete all requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller.


The median annual wage of air traffic controllers was $108,040 in May 2010. 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 $54,480, and the top 10 percent earned more than $165,660. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the starting salary for new controllers was $37,070 in 2010. Controllers' salaries increase as they complete each new training phase. According to the FAA, controllers who have already completed on-the-job training had an average annual salary of $118,000 in 2010. For all air traffic controllers, including trainees, the average annual salary was $104,000 in 2010. Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some must work additional hours. Because most control towers and route centers operate around the clock, controllers rotate shifts between day, evening, and night. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts.

Job Outlook

Though overall employment of air traffic controllers is projected to decline by 3 percent from 2010 to 2020, the number of new controllers is expected to rise due to retirements of current controllers. Job opportunities will be best for applicants with an air traffic management degree from an FAA certified school.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics
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Publication:Community College Week
Date:Apr 16, 2012
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