Air traffic controllers are the transportation professionals who direct the movement of airplanes and jets from the ground to ensure safe landings and takeoffs. The role of an air traffic controller is immensely important for the safety of air transportation. Without their guidance and communication, planes could collide on the runways and in the sky, causing chaos, destruction and possible a lot of injuries or even deaths. Every duty an air traffic controller does is for the purpose of keeping planes safely separated from one another to avoid a collision. These professionals also work to keep planes taking off and landing on time to prevent unnecessary flight delays.
From the ground, air traffic controllers review flight plans and instruct pilots where and when to take off or land a plane. They must coordinate the movements of several planes at a time, as well as ground traffic such as vehicles moving baggage and airport employees. Air traffic controllers rely on computers, radar systems and their own visual observations to determine when it is safe for aircraft to move. During flights, air traffic controllers update pilots on weather conditions and runway closures, and they communicate with passing planes en route to their destinations. In the case of any emergency, air traffic controllers are the first to know and to alert airport staff to the situation.
Aspiring air traffic controllers should earn a two-year or four-year college degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. These programs are designed specifically to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines. During these programs, students will study a variety of aviation subjects, including airspace, weather, clearances, federal regulations and how to read maps.
After completing enough of their studies to receive a recommendation letter – but, often, before graduation – students can sit for the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT). The extensive, eight-hour long pre-employment computer examination covers problem solving, prioritization, visualization, decisiveness, planning, arithmetic, movement detection and the test-taker’s tolerance for performing high-intensity tasks. If candidates pass the test, they can begin applying for air traffic controller jobs.
Once hired, they will go through a two- to five-month training program at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. After completing the program, these candidates are considered developmental controllers, and they must cultivate their skills over two to four years of on-the-job training. Once they have gained sufficient knowledge and skills on the job, they can finally attain their Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate.
Air traffic controllers earn a median salary of $122,530 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Starting salaries for air traffic controllers who have already undergone FAA training begin around $37,070. In addition to the high median salary, air traffic controllers typically enjoy the protection of a labor union. Though the challenging job has its share of stressful moments, it’s also exciting as well as financially lucrative.
Air traffic controllers are the personnel who communicate with pilots from the ground to keep aircraft far enough apart from each other – and from other traffic on the ground – to prevent collisions and accidents. Because their job is so essential to the safety of air travel, they must undergo substantial training and education – but they also have the potential to eventually earn high wages, with the median salary in the six figures.