So You Want To Be An Air Traffic Controller?

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What you need to know before you step into the ATC tower.  

In August, the Federal Aviation Administration accepted applications for 1,400 air traffic controller job opportunities around the country. In September, the FAA once again started another new hiring initiative, but this time the drive was focused on candidates who had prior ATC experience. This included eligible military air traffic controllers and others who held an air traffic controller certification.

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Nobody’s sure what’s going to happen in the next round, but here’s what you need to know about air traffic controller positions and what skills you need for the job.

According to the FAA Aerospace Forecast for fiscal years 2016 – 2036, “With increasing numbers of regional and business jets in the nation’s skies, fleet mix changes, and carriers consolidating operations in their large hubs, we expect increased activity growth which has the potential to increase controller workload. Operations at FAA and contract towers are forecast to increase 0.9 percent a year over the forecast period with commercial activity growing at five times the rate of noncommercial activity.”

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So now that it looks like more controllers are going to be needed to handle the increase in jets in the skies, what exactly do air traffic controllers do? In short, they make sure that the aircrafts stay a good distance apart from each other in the sky and on landing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, air traffic controllers issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots; monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, using radar, computers, or visual references; control all ground traffic at airports, including baggage vehicles and airport workers; manage communications by transferring control of departing flights to other traffic control centers and accepting control of arriving flights; provide information to pilots, such as weather updates, runway closures, and other critical information; and alert airport response staff, in the event of an aircraft emergency.

This is a very stressful position because air traffic controllers must manage multiple aircrafts at the same time. You should be able to handle pressure and communicate well because, as Jason Lie Chin Ann, a Singapore air traffic controller says, “There is absolutely no room for error because people's lives are on the line."

To become an air traffic controller, you must enter in FAA Academy training, which can take two to five months to complete and then take two to four years of on-the-job training to become fully certified. There are background and medical checks as well. The median annual wage for air traffic control specialists was $127,805 in 2016, according to the FAA. The salaries for entry-level air traffic control specialists increase as they complete each new training phase.

Because of the stress of the job, controllers are required to retire at age 56. Controllers tend to retire earlier than most workers: those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age 50.

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