Whether your plane's coming in for a landing or you're soaring 30,000 feet above the ground, you owe a big part of your safety to air traffic controllers. They organize the mess that is air traffic. Taking responsibility for keeping airplane pilots and passengers safe as they land, depart and travel through the sky is often rewarding, but it's tough and stressful work.
Air traffic controllers monitor numerous aircraft at one time, directing them safely though the skies and throughout the airport runways, authorizing arrivals and departures, updating pilots about weather changes and clearing them to change flight paths. No controller has all of those responsibilities -- they're split between tower controllers, radar controllers and en-route controllers. Reducing delays by making adjustments to flight paths is key to a fluid operation of an airport, but a controller's ultimate responsibility lies with ensuring the safety of each airplane and its occupants.
Air traffic controllers need to multitask, pay attention to detail, communicate effectively and exude a calm and collected personality. They cannot get flustered or stressed out when something goes wrong. Communication might be a skill needed in many occupations, but it's absolutely vital for controllers, and it's not always as simple as just speaking clearly. For example, providing a pilot with too many instructions too quickly can result in confusion and error. Similarly, a controller often finds himself pushed to his limits in regards to multitasking. With a radar full of colors, flashes, dots, lines and numbers, it's not always easy to remember what was said to which pilot or if anything was said at all.
Controllers typically work an 8-hour shift and a standard 40-hour work week. They work those hours indoors and while sitting. A controller can expect to work all shifts -- day, evening and overnight -- regularly. Stress is commonplace among controllers because of the sheer amount of attention to detail and the consequences that could result from just a single mishap. The stress is such an ingrained part of a controller's work day that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the position sees its workers retire earlier than other occupations. After 20 years of employment, controllers can retire once they reach their 50th birthday.
Air traffic controllers earned a median annual wage of $108,040 in 2010, according to the BLS. That's significantly more than the median for all other occupations, which was $33,840. Like other occupations, controllers don't reach that salary immediately. They often start at around $37,000, but completing required training bumps that figure up considerably.
While becoming a controller does not require a traditional college education, you must obtain an Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative, or AT-CTI, degree from an approved AT-CTI school. A pre-employment test follows. Upon passing the test, you'll complete two months of training and then begin your career as a developmental controller. Your training will continue until you're fully certified. The BLS notes that only individuals aged under 31 qualify to become an air traffic controller. Previous experience as a traffic controller in the military voids that requirement, the schooling requirement and the need to take a pre-employment test.
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