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What Working as an Air Traffic Controller is Like

You’ve done all the research on what it takes to become an air traffic controller, but do you really know what the job entails?  Let’s look at what a day in the life of an air traffic controller is actually like. 

First of all an air traffic controller works in shifts throughout a 24 hour time period. With flights coming and going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, controllers are needed at all hours of the day. They usually work a combination of different shifts, day, swing and midnight (graveyard) shifts.  One of the most popular combinations is a 2-2-1 shift, which includes 2 swing shifts, 2 day shifts and 1 midnight shift.  This enables them to have 3 days off after working the week.  A controller will work 90 to 120 minutes and then take a 30 minute break.  Recently the FAA has implemented a minimum of 9 hours in between shifts worked; this is to help controllers get enough sleep in between shifts.

Controllers work within the National Airspace System (NAS), coordinating the flow of air traffic, making certain that planes stay a safe distance apart.  Safety is a controller’s first concern, but they must also direct planes efficiently to minimize delays.  Some regulate airport arrivals and departures, while others regulate air traffic through designated airspaces.  Airplanes traveling in an airport’s airspace are watched by terminal controllers; organizing the flow of aircrafts into and out of the airport is their main responsibility.  These controllers work either in the control tower or in the terminal radar approach control building or room.  They rely on visual tracking methods as they control the sequence of aircrafts landing and departing.  Other controllers manage the movement of aircraft on the taxiways, handle flight data, and provide flight plan clearance.  After each plane takes off the terminal controller notifies and en route controller who then takes charge next.  En route controllers manage air traffic that is following designated routes.  These controllers work in traffic control centers, there are 20 centers located around the United States. They work in teams watching planes as they travel from one sector to the other.  As a plane enters a new sector the controller for that sector takes responsibility for the plane from the controller of the previous sector.  There are also specialized air traffic controllers that work at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, VA.  These controllers oversee the entire system, looking for situations that might create problems or delays.

Within the control tower there are multiple air traffic controllers working together.  A controller cannot leave his area until he has been relieved by another air traffic controller.  The relieved controller informs the new controller of all live traffic already in the sector and any weather issues or other problems.  When the new controller takes over the sector they do so by a verbal agreement as everything said in the tower is recorded.  They then take over the seat and sector.  The relieved controller stays for another 5 minutes to make sure the new controller has everything under control.  A controller has multiple screens they watch at the same time, sometimes over 6 screens.  This may seem daunting, but a seasoned controller can handle this easily.  They monitor factors such as weather patterns, volume of flights and other external conditions that may affect the air traffic.  They also use the FAA computer program, Flight Schedule Monitor (FSM) to ensure a complete picture of their airport traffic.   

This job differs greatly from day to day and season to season.  Summer is one of the most intense seasons, with thunderstorms suddenly popping up and complicating operations along the designated flight routes.  They work closely with the en route controllers on how best to handle these sudden changes.  Of course the size of the airport and the number of flights coming and going out of an airport also affect a controller’s daily work.  Some of the most congested airways are on the east coast; this includes Boston, New York and Washington D.C. with many international flights included in this congestion.

Most air traffic controller jobs are with the FAA and they are considered Federal employees.  Controllers can retire at 50 with 20 years of service as an active air traffic controller.  Most air traffic controllers have met the requirements to be members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. 

A day in the life of an air traffic controller is never dull, a day that starts out normal can change quickly, so a controller has to be mentally sharp at all times.  This is a job that entails a lot of responsibility and ability to multi task at a high level.

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