The air traffic control system is a vast network of people and equipment that ensures the safe operation of commercial and private aircraft. Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to make certain that planes stay a safe distance apart. Their immediate concern is safety, but controllers also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic; others regulate flights between airports.
Although airport tower or terminal controllers watch over all planes traveling through the airport’s airspace, their main responsibility is to organize the flow of aircraft in and out of the airport. Relying on radar and visual observation, they closely monitor each plane to ensure a safe distance between all aircraft and to guide pilots between the hangar or ramp and the end of the airport’s airspace. In addition, controllers keep pilots informed about changes in weather conditions such as wind sheara sudden change in the velocity or direction of the wind that can cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.
During arrival or departure, several controllers direct each plane. As a plane approaches an airport, the pilot radios ahead to inform the terminal of its presence. The controller in the radar room, just beneath the control tower, has a copy of the plane’s flight plan and already has observed the plane on radar. If the path is clear, the controller directs the pilot to a runway; if the airport is busy, the plane is fitted into a traffic pattern with other aircraft waiting to land. As the plane nears the runway, the pilot is asked to contact the tower. There, another controller, who also is watching the plane on radar, monitors the aircraft the last mile or so to the runway, delaying any departures that would interfere with the plane’s landing. Once the plane has landed, a ground controller in the tower directs it along the taxiways to its assigned gate. The ground controller usually works entirely by sight, but may use radar if visibility is very poor.
The procedure is reversed for departures. The ground controller directs the plane to the proper runway. The local controller then informs the pilot about
conditions at the airport, such as weather, speed and direction of wind, and visibility. The local controller also issues runway clearance for the pilot to
take off. Once in the air, the plane is guided out of the airport’s airspace by the departure controller.
After each plane departs, airport tower controllers
notify enroute controllers who will next take charge. There are 21 enroute control centers located around the country, each employing 300 to 700
controllers, with more than 150 on duty during peak hours at the busier facilities. Airplanes usually fly along designated routes; each center is assigned a
certain airspace containing many different routes. Enroute controllers work in teams of up to three members, depending on how heavy traffic is; each team is
responsible for a section of the center’s airspace. A team, for example, might be responsible for all planes that are between 30 to 100 miles north of an
airport and flying at an altitude between 6,000 and 18,000 feet.
To prepare for planes about to enter the team’s airspace, the radar associate controller
organizes flight plans coming off a printer. If two planes are scheduled to enter the team’s airspace at nearly the same time, location, and altitude, this
controller may arrange with the preceding control unit for one plane to change its flight path. The previous unit may have been another team at the same or
an adjacent center, or a departure controller at a neighboring terminal. As a plane approaches a team’s airspace, the radar controller accepts responsibility
for the plane from the previous controlling unit. The controller also delegates responsibility for the plane to the next controlling unit when the plane leaves
the team’s airspace.
The radar controller, who is the senior team member, observes the planes in the team’s airspace on radar and communicates with the pilots when necessary. Radar controllers warn pilots about nearby planes, bad weather conditions, and other potential hazards. Two planes on a
collision course will be directed around each other. If a pilot wants to change altitude in search of better flying conditions, the controller will check to
determine that no other planes will be along the proposed path. As the flight progresses, the team responsible for the aircraft notifies the next team in
charge. Through team coordination, the plane arrives safely at its destination.
Both airport tower and enroute controllers usually control several planes
at a time; often, they have to make quick decisions about completely different activities. For example, a controller might direct a plane on its landing
approach and at the same time provide pilots entering the airport’s airspace with information about conditions at the airport. While instructing these pilots,
the controller also would observe other planes in the vicinity, such as those in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land, to ensure that they remain
In addition to airport towers and enroute centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations operated at more than 100
locations. These flight service specialists provide pilots with information on the station’s particular area, including terrain, preflight and inflight
weather information, suggested routes, and other information important to the safety of a flight. Flight service station specialists help pilots in emergency
situations and initiate and coordinate searches for missing or overdue aircraft. However, they are not involved in actively managing air traffic.
traffic controllers work at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, where they oversee the
entire system. They look for situations that will create bottlenecks or other problems in the system, then respond with a management plan for traffic into and out of the troubled sector. The objective is to keep traffic levels in the trouble spots manageable for the controllers working at enroute centers.
Currently, the FAA is in the midst of developing and implementing a new automated air traffic control system that will allow controllers to more efficiently
deal with the demands of increased air traffic. For example, some traditional air traffic controller taskslike determining how far apart planes should be
keptwill be done by computer. Present separation standards call for a 2,000-foot vertical spacing between two aircraft operating above 29,000 feet and
flying the same ground track. With the aid of new technologies, the FAA will be able to reduce this vertical separation standard to 1,000 feet. Improved
communication between computers on airplanes and those on the ground also is making the controller’s job a little easier.
At present controllers sit at
consoles with green-glowing screens that display radar images generated by a computer. In the future, controllers will work at a modern workstation computer
that depicts air routes in full-color on a 20- by 20-inch screen. The controllers will select radio channels simply by touching on-screen buttons instead of
turning dials or switching switches. The new technology will also enable controllers to zoom in on selected corners of the air space that is their responsibility
and get better images of moving traffic than is possible with today’s machines. The new automated air traffic control system is expected to become operational in
several phases over the next 8 years.
The FAA is also considering implementing a system called “free flight” which would give pilots much more freedom in
operating their aircraft. The change will require new concepts of shared responsibility between controllers and pilots. Air traffic controllers will still be
central to the safe operation of the system, but their responsibilities will eventually shift from controlling to monitoring flights. At present, controllers assign routes, altitudes, and speeds. Under the new system, airlines and pilots would choose them. Controllers would intervene only to ensure
that aircraft remained at safe distances from one another, to prevent congestion in terminal areas and entry into closed airspace, or to otherwise ensure
safety. Today’s practices often result in planes zigzagging from point to point along corridors rather than flying from city to city in a straight line.
This results in lost time and fuel. However, it may be several years before a free flight system is implemented, despite its potential advantages. For the
system to work, new equipment must be added for pilots and controllers, and new procedures developed to accommodate both the tightly controlled and flexible
aspects of free flight. Budget constraints within the Federal Government may delay or slow implementation.
Air traffic controller trainees are selected through the competitive Federal Civil Service system. Applicants must pass a written test that measures their
ability to learn the controller’s duties. Applicants with experience as a pilot, navigator, or military controller can improve their rating by scoring well
on the occupational knowledge portion of the examination. Abstract reasoning and three-dimensional spatial visualization are among the aptitudes the exam
measures. In addition, applicants usually must have 3 years of general work experience or 4 years of college, or a combination of both. Applicants also must survive a week of screening at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, which includes aptitude tests using computer simulators and physical and psychological examinations. Successful applicants receive drug screening tests. For airport tower and enroute center positions, applicants must be less than 31 years old. Those 31 years old and over are eligible for positions at flight service stations.
Controllers must be articulate, because pilots must be given directions quickly and clearly. Intelligence and a good memory also are important because controllers constantly receive information that they must immediately grasp, interpret, and remember. Decisiveness also is required because controllers often have to make quick decisions. The ability to concentrate is crucial because controllers must make these decisions in the midst of noise and other distractions.
Trainees learn their jobs through a combination of formal and on-the-job training. They receive 7 months of intensive training at the FAA academy, where they learn the fundamentals of the airway system, FAA regulations, controller equipment, aircraft performance characteristics, as well as more specialized tasks. To receive a job offer, trainees must successfully complete the training and pass a series of examinations, including a controller skills test that measures speed and accuracy in recognizing and correctly solving air traffic control problems. The test requires judgments on spatial relationships and requires application of the rules and procedures contained in the Air Traffic Control Handbook. Based on aptitude and test scores, trainees are selected to work at either an enroute center or a tower.
After graduation, it takes several years of progressively more responsible work experience, interspersed with considerable classroom instruction and independent study, to become a fully qualified controller. This training includes instruction in the operation of the new, more automated air traffic control systemincluding the automated Microwave Landing System that enables pilots to receive instructions over automated data linksthat is being installed in control sites across the country.
Controllers who fail to complete either the academy or the on-the-job portion of the training are usually dismissed. Controllers must pass a physical examination each year and a job performance examination twice each year. Failure to become certified in any position at a facility within a specified time also may result in dismissal. Controllers also are subject to drug screening as a condition of continuing employment.
At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to ground controller, then local controller, departure controller, and finally, arrival controller. At an enroute traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate controller and then radar controller.
Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions, including management or staff jobs in air traffic control and top administrative jobs in the FAA. However, there are only limited opportunities for a controller to switch from a position in an enroute center to a tower.
Median annual earnings of air traffic controllers in 2000 were $82,520. The middle 50 percent earned between $62,250 and $101,570.
The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,760, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $111,150.
The average annual salary, excluding overtime earnings,
for air traffic controllers in the Federal Governmentwhich employs 89 percent of the totalin nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions
was $53,313 in 2001. Both the worker’s job responsibilities and the complexity of the particular facility determine a controller’s pay. For example, controllers
who work at the FAA’s busiest air traffic control facilities earn higher pay.
Depending on length of service, air traffic controllers receive 13 to 26 days of
paid vacation and 13 days of paid sick leave each year, life insurance, and health benefits. In addition, controllers can retire at an earlier age and with fewer
years of service than other Federal employees. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service as an active air traffic
controller or after 25 years of active service at any age. There is a mandatory retirement age of 56 for controllers who manage air traffic.