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What does an Air Traffic Controller do?

Air traffic controllers are tasked with ensuring that the skies are safe by guiding the myriad of aircraft that are airborne at any given time in the nation. Specifically speaking, they are responsible for directing private, commercial, and military aircraft from the time they take off until the time they return back to Terra Firma. Their work helps guarantee the safety of pilots, passengers, and cargo 24/7, 365-days-a-year.

Duties of an Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers man the more than 350 control towers, communication facilities, and radar centers throughout the nation. In addition to clearing traffic for landing or taking off, they also issue weather advisories and monitoring the in-flight progress of the thousands of aircraft that are aloft at any given time. Air traffic controllers also play a role in national defense by identifying illegal aircraft that have violated national airspace.

With this much responsibility on their plate at any given time, air traffic controllers' work under very stressful circumstances, and efforts are made to break up their schedule to maintain alertness. As such, they tend to work rotating shifts, which feature working "on position" for upwards of two hours followed by a thirty minute break. Research has proven that when controllers work longer than that their performance and efficacy rapidly drops.

Core Skills and Training Required of Air Traffic Controllers

Certain core skills typically accompany the successful aircraft controller to work. As a group, they are generally well-organized, quick with computations, demonstrate strong decision making skills, and exhibit excellent communication abilities. Moreover, since the position is largely deemed as one of the most mentally challenging careers available, trainees undergo thorough physical and psychological testing to ensure that they are up to the demanding physical and mental rigors of the job.

There are three major pathways to becoming an air traffic controller:
  • The military provides a steady reservoir of available candidates who have received specialized training from the FAA or the Department of Defense.
  • Four years of college, or combination of study and three years of related work experience.
  • Completion of a certified program in aviation at one of the FAA's Air Traffic Training Initiative.
New employees must also complete a 12-week program at the FAA's Oklahoma City academy prior to placement in one of the nation's control towers. As one might expect, air traffic controllers are highly compensated for their skills, and competition is sharp whenever a position opens.


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