All About Air Traffic Controllers


All About Air Traffic Controllers

Aviation pioneers did not have to adhere to ground-based control of aircraft. In fact, very few aircraft flew in the skies, which made it pointless to enforce control of aircraft from the ground. In Europe, aircraft flew over different countries, which raised questions for many critics. As a result, the formation of the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) introduced standard rules for air traffic. Most countries applied its rules and procedures. The United States did not sign the ICAN Convention; however, it formulated its own set of air traffic rules after the Air Commerce Act passed in 1926. This piece of legislation authorizes the Department of Commerce to establish air traffic rules that would promote safe navigation, protection, and identification of aircraft in U.S. skies. Unfortunately, these rules briefly covered major aspects of air traffic control.

As air traffic increased, a minority of airport operators raised concern over the general rules, because they did not prevent collisions. As a result, they started to form the air traffic control (ATC) system that consisted of visual signals, such as waving flags to communicate with pilots. Airports installed radio equipment into planes and air traffic towers during the 1930s. As time progressed, these towers became increasingly efficient in dictating air traffic control on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced the concept of Free Flight in 1994. Free Flight involved the development of on-board instruments and electronics that would allow pilots to maintain a safe distance between planes without the assistance of ground controllers. In 1998, the FAA started to implement technological advancements that would take advantage of the Free Flight program, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) that would help track the position of aircraft.

Current technological advancements include upgrades to the air traffic control system, such as a global navigation satellite system, precise radar equipment, and an advanced aircraft transponder. In addition, a new cockpit design will provide pilots with thirty-two types of information about weather, hazards, emergencies, turbulence, and traffic. These technological advances continue to equip airplanes with instruments that will enable pilots to govern the skies without the assistance of ground controllers. This could affect the need for ground traffic controllers in the distant future.

Air traffic controllers are responsible for coordinating the movement of air traffic to ensure that planes stay within a safe distance of each other. In addition, air traffic controllers coordinate incoming and outgoing aircraft. Controllers issue orders to pilots that dictate when to land and takeoff, monitor and guide aircraft with sophisticated radar equipment, authorize route changes, and alert pilots of weather turbulence. Air traffic controllers alert airport emergency personnel of dire situations. Controllers focus on the safety of passengers and airport personnel and look for ways to minimize delay by directing planes away from interference. They manage incoming and outgoing traffic by monitoring airplanes embarking on their journey through U.S. skies.

Air traffic controllers fall into one of three categories, including tower controllers, radar approach and departure controllers, and en route controllers. Tower controllers communicate with pilots by helping them direct the movement of aircraft on the runways. They verify flight plans, authorize pilots for clearance to takeoff or land, and direct the movement of airplanes on the runways. The majority of air traffic controllers work from towers. Radar approach and departure controllers guide airplanes traveling within close proximity of an airport, usually a forty mile radius, to stay safe distances apart. These air traffic controllers primarily focus on managing the flow of incoming and outgoing aircraft from radar centers. En route controllers monitor aircraft after they have departed from the airport's designated airspace. En route controllers are stationed at any of the twenty-one en route traffic centers in the United States.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), air traffic controllers consisted of about 27,000 airport jobs in 2010. The Federal Aviation Administration employed 94 percent of the 27,000 air traffic controllers in 2010. Air traffic controllers work in diverse environments, depending on their position and duty. For instance, tower controllers work near high-volume airports, whereas en route controllers work from enclosed office buildings scattered throughout the United States. Radar controllers work in dark rooms in order to monitor aircraft as they appear on the radar screen. Controllers must possess the ability to think clearly during stressful situations. The responsibility of watching over the lives of countless passengers and airport personnel can prove nerve-racking. This causes most air traffic controllers to retire earlier than other workers. Air traffic controllers who have acquired at least 20 years of experience can retire at the age of 50. All air traffic controllers must retire at the age of 56.

Prospective air traffic controllers must be a United States citizen, and obtain an air traffic management degree from an accredited school. The majority of accredited colleges and universities offer Federal Aviation Administration certified degrees. In addition, prospective applicants must achieve a qualifying score on the FAA pre-employment test, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy. Air traffic controllers with military experience in air traffic control may not need to complete the Federal Aviation Administration education requirements. Prospective air traffic controllers with no previous experience can not become a controller if they exceed the age of 31. Prospective air traffic controllers with no previous experience must enroll into an FAA-approved Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) to obtain their educational credentials. Prospective students typically attend school between 2 and 4 years before graduation. Candidates who complete the AT-CTI program are eligible to take the FAA pre-employment test and then a two-month training program. After graduating from the FAA Academy, trainees report to their air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they receive all of their credentials.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly salary for air traffic controllers was $108,040 in 2010. The lowest ten percent received a yearly salary of less than $54,480. Conversely, the top ten percent received a yearly salary of more than $165,650. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, entry-level air traffic controllers earned $37,070 as their starting pay in 2010. Air traffic controllers receive increases in their salaries as they complete new training phases. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, air traffic controllers who completed their on-the-job training averaged an annual salary of $118,000 in 2010. The majority of air traffic controllers work full-time, and some work more than a 40-hour work week. Most control and en route towers operate around the clock. As a result, air traffic controllers rotate shifts between day, evening, and night. Controllers also work weekend and holiday hours.

Follow these links to learn more about the profession of air traffic control: