What do you do for a living?
I am an air traffic control specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I am also the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Facility Representative that represents the air traffic controllers and staff specialists at Toledo Express Air Traffic Control Tower in Northwest Ohio.
How would you describe what you do?
Our controller handbook says that we provide for “the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic.”
What does your work entail?
My facility is an Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) with a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON, or just “radar”) in the same building. Since all of our controllers work both tower and radar, we call ourselves an “up/down” (where “up is the tower and “down” is the radar.)
When working in the tower behind the big glass windows, the “Local Controller” controls all aircraft that are inbound to the airport or that are on the ground and ready for takeoff.
The “Ground Controller” talks to aircraft and vehicles that are moving on the airport’s taxiways, and the “Clearance Delivery” controller issues flight plan clearances and information to aircraft.
In the TRACON, the “Radar Controller” works all of the aircraft within approximately 55 miles of the primary airport. Besides controlling airplanes into and out of the primary airport, the radar controller also works aircraft that are overflying the airspace and inbounds and outbounds from numerous “satellite” airports.
Also in the TRACON is the “Arrival Data” position. Data helps the radar controller with amending flight plans and altitudes, issuing some clearances, and updating important information regarding weather and metering programs into large airports.
What’s a typical work week like?
At my facility, we work five 8 hour days followed by two days off. Some of our controllers work straight day shifts, some work straight nights, some work shifts that rotate from night shifts to days shifts, and one of our controllers works straight midnights.
During a normal shift at my up/down facility, we rotate through all of the positions mentioned above.
How did you get started?
I attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1995 through 1999 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. ERAU is one of a limited number of colleges that have been included in the FAA’s College Training Initiative or “CTI.” This initiative helps fast track the hiring process.
What do you like about what you do?
The ongoing joke is that we get to tell people what to do; and if they don’t do it, men in suits will show up at their house. That’s not entirely true, but it makes for a good story.
What do you dislike?
Honestly, there isn’t much to dislike about the job itself. It’s quite rewarding.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
We are hourly employees. We get overtime for anything over 8 hours worked in a day or over 40 hours in a week. Pretty standard, really.
How much money do Air Traffic Controllers make?
The range of pay is quite large due to the different types and complexities of facilities and the individual’s qualifications at each facility. Pay is calculated by levels. Level 4 is a very small tower and Level 12 would be an Atlanta or O’Hare.
The pay bands go from approximately $30,000/yr to $135,000/yr before adding locality.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Fresh out of the FAA academy, I made about $30,000/yr with raises after getting certified on different control positions.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
After getting hired nearly a year after graduating college with my handy Bachelor’s Degree, I reported to the FAA’s academy in Oklahoma City, OK. There my classmates and I were taught the basics of air traffic control that we would apply at our facilities.
Once reporting to the facility and learning the layouts of the airspace and the airport, I started on-the-job training. This may be one of the most surprising things that I tell people. We just plug in with a trainer and start talking to airplanes. The trainer does have the power to key up their headset to keep us from giving any dangerous instructions, but we learn by doing the job.
After a year and a half of training, I reached “Full Performance Level”, meaning that I had been certified as qualified to work every position in the tower and the TRACON. The FAA has since changed the name to “Certified Professional Controller.”
What is most challenging about what you do?
Controlling requires a great deal of concentration and spatial thinking. Being able to see a conflict between two aircraft that are 30 or 40 miles apart is important in our line of work. Not all people have this foresight; and therefore, not all people can do this job.
A different type of challenge is when something wrong or even tragic happens. You have to be able to clear your mind and work through it until you can get off of position. Several controllers, myself included, have been the last person that talked to a pilot before a fatal accident. It is difficult to shake that feeling. Thankfully, NATCA (our labor union) has a trained team of counselors to help us through difficult times like those.
What is most rewarding?
Helping someone get home safely is the most rewarding thing I can think of. I’ve talked to pilots that are trying to get to an ailing family member before they pass on, and knowing that I helped get them to their loved ones’ bedside makes me feel like I’ve contributed to society.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
It is a lot of work, and it takes a certain predisposition to do this job. Besides learning how to control airplanes, you have to learn a complex language of terms, acronyms, and abbreviations. You have to be dedicated, and you can’t fudge your way through it. As trainers, we’re really good at seeing through a smokescreen.
How much time off do you get/take?
Depending on years of service, you get either 4, 6, or 8 hours of annual leave per pay period. There are 26 pay periods in a year. We also get 4 hours of sick leave per pay period.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
We are not the dudes waiving the flashlights at airplanes on the ramp, and it’s nothing like the movie “Pushing Tin.”
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
While we do have the opportunities to move to different and busier facilities, I am quite content to finish my career at Toledo ATCT. I really hate moving!
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Air Traffic Control is a rewarding field, but it is difficult and not meant for everyone. If someone is interested in ATC, they should be able to contact a facility near them and request a tour. Since 9/11, there are restrictions, but it should be possible to get a tour or job shadow for a day.