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Air Traffic Controllers

Nature of the Work

Air traffic controllers are the guardians of the airways. They keep track of planes flying within their assigned area and make certain that they are safe distances apart. Their immediate concern is safety, but controllers also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic; others regulate flights between airports.

Although airport tower or terminal controllers watch over all planes traveling through the airport's airspace, their main responsibility is to organize the flow of aircraft in and out of the airport. Relying on radar and/or visual observation, they closely monitor each plane to maintain a safe distance between all aircraft and to guide pilots between the hanger or ramp and the end of the airport's airspace.

During arrival or departure, each plane is handled by several controllers. As a plane approaches an airport, the pilot radios ahead to inform the terminal of its presence. The arrival controller in the radar room just beneath the control tower has a copy of the plane's flight plan and already has observed the plane on radar. If the way is clear, the arrival controller directs the pilot to a runway; if the airport is busy, the plane is fitted into a traffic pattern with other aircraft waiting to land. As the plane nears the runway, the pilot is asked to contact the tower. There, a local controller, who also is watching the plane on radar, monitors the aircraft the last mile or so to the runway, delaying any departures that would interfere with the plane's landing. Once the plane has landed, a ground controller in the tower directs it along the taxiways to its assigned gate. The ground controller works almost entirely by sight, but may use radar if visibly is very poor.

A similar procedure is used for departures. The ground controller directs the plane to the proper runway. The local controller then informs the pilot about conditions at the airport, such as the weather, speed and direction of wind, and visibility. The local controller also issues runway clearance for the pilot to take off. Once in the air, the plane is guided out of the airport's airspace by the departure controller.

After each plane departs, airport tower controllers notify enroute controllers who will next take charge. There are 24 enroute control centers located around the country. Airplanes generally fly along designated routes; each center is assigned a certain airspace containing many different routes. Enroute controllers work in teams of up to three members, depending on how heavy traffic is; each team is responsible for a section of the center's airspace. A team, for example, might be responsible for all planes that are between 30 to 100 miles north of an airport and flying at an altitude between 6,000 and 18,000 feet.

To prepare for planes about to enter the team's airspace, the radar associate controller organizes flight plans coming from printing machines. If two planes are scheduled to enter the team's airspace at a similar time, location, and altitude, this controller may arrange with the preceding control unit for one plane to change its flight plans. The previous unit may have been another team at the same or an adjacent center, or a departure controller at a neighboring terminal. As a plane approaches a team's airspace, the radar controller accepts responsibility for the pane from the previous controlling unit. The controller also delegates responsibility for the plane to the next controlling unit when the plane leaves the team's airspace.

The radar controller, who is the senior team member, observes the planes in the team's airspace on radar and communicates with the pilots when necessary. Radar controllers warn pilots about nearby planes, bad weather conditions, and other possible hazards. Two planes on a collision course will be directed around each other. If a pilot wants to change altitude in search of better flying conditions, the controller will check to determine that no other planes will be along the proposed path. As the flight progresses, the team responsible for the aircraft notifies the next team in charge. Through team coordination, the plane arrives safely at its destination.

Both airport tower and enroute controllers usually control several planes at one time and often have to make quick decisions about completely different activities. For example, a controller might direct a plane on its landing approach and at the same time provide pilots entering the airport's airspace with information about conditions at the airport. While instructing these pilots, the controller also would observe other planes in the vicinity, such as those in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land, to ensure that they remain well separated.

In addition to airport towers and enroute centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations operated at over 300 locations. These controllers provide pilots with information, suggested routes, and other information important to the safety of a flight.

Working Conditions

Controllers work a basic 40-hour week; however, they may work additional hours for which they receive overtime pay or equal time off. Because most control towers and centers operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, controllers rotate night and weekend shifts.

During busy times, controllers must work rapidly and efficiently. This requires total concentration to keep track of several planes at the same time and make certain all pilots receive correct instructions.


Air traffic controllers held over 26,000 jobs in 1990, at airports--in towers and flight service stations--and in enroute traffic control centers. The overwhelming majority worked for the FAA; a small number of civilian controllers worked for the Department of Defense. In addition to controllers employed by the Federal Government, some worked for private air traffic control companies providing service to non-FAA towers.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Air traffic controller trainees are selected through the competitive Federal Civil Service system. Applicants must pass a written test that measures their ability to learn the controller's duties. Applicants with experience as a pilot, navigator, or military controller can get points added to their rating by scoring well on the occupational knowledge portion of the examination. Arithmetic computation, abstract reasoning, and three-dimensional spatial visualization are among the aptitudes measured by the examination. In addition, applicants generally must have 3 years of general work experience or 4 years of college, or a combination of both. Applicants must pass physical and psychological examinations. For airport tower and enroute center positions, applicants must be less than 31 years old. Those 31 years old and over are eligible for positions at flight service stations.

Potential controllers should be articulate, since directions to pilots must be given quickly and clearly. A good memory also is important because controllers constantly receive information which they must immediately grasp. interpret, and remember. Decisiveness is also required since controllers often have to make quick decisions. Successful applicants receive a combination of on-the-job and formal training to learn the fundamentals of the airway system, FAA regulations, controller equipment, and aircraft performance characteristics. They receive 11-17 weeks of intensive screening and training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. It then takes several years of progressively more responsible work experience, interspersed with considerable classroom instruction and independent study, to become a fully qualified controller.

At airports, new controllers begin in the tower, where they first serve as ground controller, then local controller, departure controller, and finally, arrival controller. At an enroute traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate controller and then radar associate controller and then radar controller. Failure to become certified in any position at a facility within a specified time may result in dismissal. Controllers who fail to complete either the academy or the on-the-job portion of the training are dismissed. Controllers must pass a physical examination each year and a job performance examination twice each year.

Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions, including management or staff jobs in air traffic control and top administrative jobs in the FAA.

Job Outlook

Competition for air traffic controller jobs is expected to remain keen through the year 2000 because the occupation's relatively high pay and liberal retirement program attract many more qualified applicants than the number of job openings.

Employment of air traffic controllers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Employment growth is not expected to keep pace with growth in the number of aircraft flying because of the expected introduction of laborsaving air traffic control equipment -- including the automated Microwave Landing System -- that will enable pilots to receive instructions over automated data links, thus reducing the need for controllers during the 1990's. Most job openings will arise from the need to replace experienced controllers who transfer to other occupations or stop working.

Air traffic controllers who continue to meet the proficiency and medical requirements enjoy more job security than most workers. The demand for air travel and the workloads of air traffic controllers decline during recessions, but controllers seldom are laid off.


Air traffic controllers who started with the FAA in 1990 earned about $20,300 (grade 7) a year. Controllers at the grade 9 level and above earn 5 percent more than other Federal workers in an equivalent grade. A controller's pay is determined by both the worker's job responsibilities and the location of the particular facility. Earnings are higher at facilities where traffic patterns are more complex. In 1990, controllers averaged $39,725 a year.

Depending on length of service, they receive 13 to 26 days of paid vacation and 13 days of paid sick leave each year, life insurance, and health benefits. In addition, controllers can retire at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than other Federal employees.

Related Occupations

Other occupations which involve the direction and control of traffic in air transportation are airline-radio operator and airplane dispatcher.

Sources of Additional Information

A pamphlet providing general information about controllers and instructions for submitting an application is available from any U.S. Office of Personnel Management Job Information Center. Look under U.S. Government, Office of Personnel Management, in your telephone book to obtain a local Job Information Center telephone number and call for a copy of the Air Traffic Controller Announcement. If there is no listing in your telephone book, dial the toll-free number 800-555-1212 and request the number of the Office of Personnel Management Job Information Center for your location.


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