Career and Job Search Guide

Air Traffic Controler

Air traffic controllers coordinate the direction and altitudes commercial and private airplanes travel to ensure air safety. Controllers are primarily worried about safety; however, they also must make sure air traffic is coordinated properly to prevent delays.

Airport tower controllers, also known as terminal controllers, are also responsible to effectively coordinate the landing and departing of all planes at the airport. They monitor and direct planes by using radar, as well as notifying pilots when there are changes in weather that might affect air travel.

When a plane takes off or lands, numerous controllers provide the pilots with instructions and information. Before a plane descends upon an airport, the pilot notifies the terminal that the plane is arriving while the controller observes the plane on radar. If a runway is available, the controller notifies the pilot where to land. When there is a lot of traffic at the airport, the controller directs the pilot to fly in a pattern until there is a runway available. When the plane prepares to land, the pilot must notify the tower. At this point, another controller monitors the plane right before it lands and prevents planes nearby from taking off that could impede the landing. After the landing, a ground controller instructs the pilot about the route the plane should travel to reach the gate. During this process, the controller usually directs the plane without radar.

When a plane departs an airport, the same process is followed: the controller notifies the pilot of the runway his or her plane needs to depart from and local weather conditions. When it is safe for the plane to depart, the controller informs the pilot.

Once the plane leaves the airport, air traffic control duties are transferred to enroute controllers. 300-700 people work as air traffic controllers in one of 21 control centers nationally. Every air traffic control center is assigned to monitor planes that travel around specific routes. Enroute controllers coordinate their efforts in specified airspace by working in teams.

Before a plane travels into the airspace monitored by a team, they will print flight information and review it. When multiple planes are scheduled to arrive in a team's designated airspace at the same time, usually controllers will instruct one of the pilots to change routes. Upon entrance into the airspace, responsibility is transferred to radar controllers. Once the plane enters air space under someone else's jurisdiction, new air traffic controller professionals assume responsibility.

Radar controllers monitor planes and inform pilots about harsh weather, planes travelling in the same area, and flight dangers. When pilots want to alter their planes' altitude, they check with controllers to determine if it would be safe. When team members work together, planes land at the airport safely. Airport tower and enroute controllers monitor multiple planes at once and often instruct pilots to change routes. During these instructions, controllers monitor planes traveling in patterns awaiting authorization to land.

A computerized air traffic control system, known as the National Airspace System (NAS) Architecture is run by the FAA. This system is an effective plan to handle increased air travel. The plan details strategies for replacing old equipment and better utilizing technology to improve safety and increased air traffic.

Air traffic controllers are also located at over 35 different flight service stations throughout the United States, providing information about weather, routes, and safety information. Flight service specialists communicate with pilots not currently getting information from a tower, help pilots during emergencies, and manage searches for planes missing from radar. Where there is no control center, flight service specialists assist planes taking off or landing, but they do not coordinate air traffic with numerous planes.

Certain air traffic control specialists are employed at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. This facility is run by the FAA in Herndon, VA. They determine situations that could congest or impede air traffic and develop plans to solve the problems. They ensure that air space is never too full to make it difficult for enroute centers to perform their jobs.

Work environment. When there is a lot of air traffic, controllers must eliminate mistakes and work quickly. They must be completely focused since they usually monitor several planes at once. Needless to say, air traffic controllers have very stressful jobs. Radar controllers work in dark rooms monitoring small images on the radarscope.

Controllers spend 40 hours a week working, but sometimes they work overtime. Since air traffic monitoring facilities operate around the clock, controllers usually alter the night and weekend shifts they work.