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Career Insight: Air Traffic Controller

Believe it or not, I had desired to become an air traffic controller for a long time. I enrolled at Dowling College on Long Island, where there was an FAA-approved AT-CTI program (a prerequisite for aspiring air traffic controllers at the time). It was the closest school with an approved program to my home in Worcester, even though the FAA dropped the AT-CTI mandate only two years later.

What drew me to air traffic control was the opportunity to have an excellent aviation job without sacrificing quality of life, specifically always being on the road, constantly shifting from location to location. That part of the industry, most commonly termed "the pilot's lifestyle," has always turned me off. Disclaimer: I love to travel but by choice. Many pilots I speak with mention getting tired of the travel very quickly - something unfathomable to most others.

Some of the closest friends I have made through work are air traffic controllers (shout out Vlad, Scott, Zack, Marena, Antonio...really, anyone I know who tells pilots to say hi to me after landing in Albany). Often quirky and personable people (despite prevailing stereotypes), it takes a specific personality to thrive as a Certified Professional Controller (C.P.C.). Most do not appreciate all that is hurled at controllers, a profession most associated with high levels of stress and the potential for low quality of life outside of work (if managed improperly).

The Process

Hopefully, you are one of the many people who, for the most part, actually understand what an air traffic controller does. No, it is not the person waving the sticks on the ground. If that was your assumption until now, this segment is for you.

Essentially, air traffic controllers manage the flow of air traffic from when it begins to taxi until they have parked at their destination. Air traffic control has different roles, all with unique functions. Some facilities will cross-train for the Tower and Terminal based on traffic levels and facility design (commonly called an "up-down" facility. These are currently being phased out). Controllers who direct aircraft on the ground are very different from the ones who manage flights cruising at altitude.

  • Tower Controllers control the airspace on or immediately around a local airport.

  • Terminal Controllers control the airspace in and out of an airport.

  • En-route Controllers manage traffic at higher altitudes.

According to the F.A.A., the prerequisite requirements to become an air traffic controller are the individual must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen.

  • Be under 31 (on the closing date of the application period).

  • Pass a medical examination, security investigation, and FAA air traffic pre-employment tests.

  • Speak English clearly.

  • Have three years of progressively responsible work experience or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience totaling three years.

As I mentioned, there used to be a day when you had to pass the F.A.A.'s Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) Program to become a controller. To be eligible for qualification, you had to successfully graduate from an institution that participated and met the conditions of the program. I only remember a little about the specific curriculum, which included classroom and practical training. Some schools, including mine, even invested in a training laboratory! We were virtually placed in the Vancouver (YVR) tower to handle traffic.

These programs still exist and are highly encouraged. However, a college degree is now optional. Now, so long as you meet the above requirements, you qualify to apply. The change of prerequisites is not to say air traffic control is currently a free-for-all; it is still difficult to sell yourself as an attractive candidate. You will still want to make yourself as competitive as possible. So, while they are not required, a four-year degree is perhaps the most influential piece of the selection process and is highly urged.

There are other just as valuable tracks to becoming a controller. For example, a colleague of mine worked in the Navy as an air traffic controller. All branches with air support will have air traffic management positions, all of which you will be eligible to transfer seamlessly into the civilian ranks upon completing your service. There will surely be an adjustment period, but nothing that cannot be overcome.

The Exam

If selected as a potential candidate, you have really only progressed to the next step. The Air Traffic Skills Assessment (ATSA) is designed to gauge your skills and ability to handle air traffic control demands. The exam is approximately three hours long and is only offered by the FAA in select locations (usually, they will still be fairly local).

This test is no ordinary exam, and there is no natural way to study since it is aptitude-based. Some websites offer attempts at helpful preparation, but these have mixed reviews or are money grabs. Some believe it helps, and others don't. You are encouraged to ask before investing in informal ATSA test preparation for yourself.

There are seven subsets as part of the test:
  • Memory Game

  • Memory/Variables

  • Spatial/Visual Relationship

  • Air Traffic Control (ATC) Simulation

  • Word Problems

  • Personality Test

  • Reading Comprehension

After completing the first four subsets, you must speak to the Administrator about accessing the last three. More information about the subsets is available at various resources on the Internet.

The Academy

Congrats on making it this far! After being selected, you must find housing in Oklahoma City - home of the FAA Academy, where air traffic control training takes place over twelve weeks. You may reduce your time at the academy to only five weeks if you attend and complete an AT-CTI program before commencing official training.

The process, unfortunately, does not get any less stressful. Your evaluation will award you specific points and determine whether you will work in a radar room or a tower. Other factors are at play, which is another way of saying staffing levels are a significant variable that is also considered. Regardless, you will know early on whether you will work in a control tower or a radar room.

During this training, you weather rigorous classroom and practical evaluations to determine whether or not you are capable and able to move on to a facility. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee you will make it through the academy with a job offer - if you fail ("wash out") of the academy, that's it - it's the end of the line. It is heartbreaking but vital for prospective candidates to understand and be aware of.

The Facility

Think it's over yet? I'm afraid not. As the saying goes, "When you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport." You may very well land at some Class D airfield you couldn't pronounce before if you tried, but it will allow you to ease into the newness of becoming an air traffic controller. Further, it will permit the opportunity to build a foundational skillset you can take with you wherever you move on.

However, this will not always be the case, and you may be thrown into a relatively complex airport environment with a lot more to learn than just clearing planes to move around. The information overload will be substantial, and traffic levels will not depend on your then-limited capacity. At your first facility, it will oftentimes feel like sink or swim, with the potential for local complexities possibly pushing you over the ledge.

For example, the perimeter road does not completely spread around the airfield at Westchester, one of the country's busiest Class D airspaces. Thus, the already highly active Ground controller will sometimes speak to more fuel trucks than aircraft. Imagine how complicated it might be to wrap your head around if you were simply trying to learn the rules of the road.

The Perks

Air traffic control comes with several benefits. Despite often stressful days, air traffic controllers generally love what they do. It is hard to find long-term careers in aviation where travel is optional, but if you are open-minded about where you choose to live, air traffic control is one of your most viable options.

Healthy salary and benefits. Conceivably, it is the most well-known perk of becoming a controller. In fact, many people I went to college with went into air traffic control for the money. Pay scales directly correlate to the facility's "level," a metric determined by traffic numbers. For this reason, there is a lot of inter-transitioning between facilities. Upward mobility often means switching facilities to seek a higher pay scale.

Air traffic control is a federal job, meaning the benefits are also mighty. Be mindful that there are such things as "contract" facilities, where the FAA will charter radar services to private operators. These are not Federal jobs, so you will miss out on these higher pay scales and benefits until an F.A.A. facility picks you up.

Upward mobility. As mentioned, there are countless opportunities to move around once you become a Certified Professional Controller (C.P.C.) to grow and chase higher pay. Intra-facility, there are typically supervisorial positions and always an administration. However, larger airports and higher levels await your call if you are willing to relocate.

Typically, the starter facility is a short-term situation at a smaller airport. Many controllers look at this time spent almost as an extension of college. A rule of thumb is that however long they train you is approximately how long you should spend at a facility before seeking other opportunities. If your training takes a year, you should spend at least another year certified before moving on.

Upbeat culture. Contrary to our typical "rigid" culture, controllers are generally some of the most laid-back people on the airfield. They are allowed to wear whatever they want and, workload permitting, are typically open to being visited. Due to the job's responsibilities, a control tower with a poor culture can have catastrophic results. Like any other workplace, I'm sure there are ups and downs that can feel like a rollercoaster. But, in every tower I have visited, I could feel the "good vibes."

Quality of life. Thanks to the supply and demand hours of aviation, a vast amount of controllers are needed during regular business hours. While overnights might still exist at some 24-hour facilities, they are typically uncommon since traffic significantly decreases before midnight and picks back up around 0600L. Many facilities rotate staffers between the morning and afternoon shifts to keep the team sharp. Retirement for controllers is strictly at 56 years old.

The framework to live happily is intrinsically rooted in the airline industry. However, quality of life will mostly come down to the individual, how they handle stress, and the ability to be patient and leave work in the office. Inversely, building a quality life outside of work will also help manage the stress inside work. For example, one controller I know travels the world while another teaches aviation students.

Boundaries are important. The key is to remember that work is just that - work. One controller I spoke with mentioned that they often feel "married to the job," which can easily happen to those who care about what they do. I know this is easier said than done, but it takes time and practice to:

  1. Find your boundaries.

  2. Stand firm.

The Downside

Like any other job, there are also downsides to being an air traffic controller. Despite what I mentioned above, many do find it hard for the stress not to leak into their personal lives, at least occasionally. Transportation has a 40.5% divorce rate, and controllers are certainly on the higher end of that spectrum. Historically, society stereotypically associates this trend with controllers - in short, it is nothing new.

The current staffing crisis is not precisely helping this inherently stressful position. Perhaps more critical than flight crews, understaffed facilities result in lower capacity, leading to significant delays and cancellations. Especially for en route controllers, simple inconveniences of the past, like thunderstorms, create chaos up and down the Eastern Seaboard as there are not enough resources to produce a creative solution as there were in the past.

I briefly mentioned it already, but until you build some seniority, you can plan initially on being positioned somewhere you had not previously envisioned. If I recall correctly, I remember it used to be that you would select three regions and be appointed based on your performance in Oklahoma City. The candidate can now determine specific airports from a list provided in class order.

Amongst others, I have mates who work in Harrisburg and Philadelphia (not PHL), locations that both individuals will tell you were not very high on their list when they initially applied to be a controller. I say to choose not to look at this negatively; you need to make your time count, and you might as well gain valuable experience and make lasting connections. You need to have faith in the process. Getting in now will build seniority and get you to a leveled facility you can only imagine.

Is It for Me?

Currently, many parallels can be drawn between the route to becoming a pilot and a controller. With air travel booming to unprecedented levels and aircraft hitting the market in the next decade capable of flight that we have not seen before, both are critical to meeting the ever-expanding capacity in the skies. While many controllers are irked at staffing levels like pilots are, they will acknowledge that the chance for upward advancement and growth has never been greater.

I have met many controllers who have gone on to their dream locations they have had when they started. Orlando, Miami, Los Angeles - you name it. With hard work and dedication, eventually, the stars will line up, opening the door to the ideal life you had wished for when you started. But, to get there, you need time and patience and to be willing to sacrifice time spent somewhere you never expected. It may be hard to see at the time, but this time is perhaps the most critical. You will find yourself and what you truly want. Who knows? Maybe a door will open you had never imagined in the first place.

So, if you are a patient yet driven individual intrigued by air traffic control, maybe it is for you! It comes down to how open you are to sacrificing the present for the future, as the process is long and arduous and will require relocation to a non-desirable airport. Be confident - every controller I have spoken to feels they made the right choice in life and wouldn't change it for the world. Indeed, you will, too.

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