Careers in ATC


 Careers in Air Traffic Control

As wonderful as flying is, some people prefer to go into a career with a more grounded home life.  Fortunately there are many surface based options which allow you to stay connected with aviation.  One of these is Air Traffic Control.

You may have seen movies showing controllers hunched over radar scopes or looking out of a windowed room at aircraft on an airport surface and wondered what was actually required in the job.

An Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATCS) is charged with the safe and efficient flow of air traffic.  There are four main methods of performing this task – in a Control Tower, Approach Control, Center or Flight Service.   Let’s follow a mythical flight from a small airport in New Mexico a larger one in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area to see how these fit together.

Before a pilot ever turns on the aircraft engine, she is required to familiarize herself with all the weather and information relevant to the route she intends to fly.  The traditional way to do this is to call Flight Service on the phone and ask for a Pilot Briefing.  After the briefing, she files her flight plan with them.  Then she heads out to the aircraft and goes through her normal preflight checklist.

This airport is small enough that there is no tower, so when she is ready to fly she calls Flight Service again on the radio.   Flight Service coordinates her clearance with the Center and relays the information, including her transponder codes and frequencies.  Once she departs she switches to the frequency given and talks to the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).

Our pilot has departed Santa Rosa, NM – located in Albuquerque ARTCC’s airspace.  She contacts the Center and they identify her on Radar. As she travels eastward she will pass into other sectors – with each invisible boundary crossed the Center will ask her to change to the next frequency.  At one point she will be instructed to contact Forth Worth Center – the next one on her route.

As she gets closer to Dallas, the number of aircraft in the area intensifies.  Wherever you have numerous aircraft around one or more airports, the FAA has created Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACONs).  The Fort Worth TRACON carefully weaves aircraft into, out of, and around several airports.  Their sectors are smaller and radars closer together so they are better able to discern the exact location of aircraft in relationship to each other.  Like the Centers, a TRACON is a dark room with the controllers facing large radar screens all day.

Our pilot is heading towards Alliance Airport, which is large enough to have a tower.  The TRACON will give her the initial instructions for her approach then turn her over to Alliance Tower.

As she comes on frequency, the controllers in the tower spot her flying inbound.  They are continually scanning the surface and the sky around the airport to ensure no other aircraft are in her way.  They give her clearance to land.  After she touches down, tower turns her over to the ground controller – who is also in the tower.  Ground control tells her how to get from the runway to the airport ramp where she will park.

So there you have it.  Centers and TRACONs are mostly jobs in large dark rooms where you use computers and radar all day.  The Tower is a glass enclosed room located high enough to see out to the ends of an airport. Flight Service specialists work at cubicles with large computer screens showing weather graphics and textual information.

How do you know which type of work will suit you?  What does the training require?  How much does it pay?

All of them begin in the classroom regardless of any previous experience.  Center, TRACON and Tower folks start by going through a screening process at the Air Traffic Academy in Oklahoma City.  There they study the basics of the job and over several months they are tested to see if they have the ability to analyze traffic patterns and take the actions needed to keep aircraft traveling safely.  Flight Service is contracted out to a company called Leidos, and their training takes place at one of the three large Hub Facilities.

If they graduate from the academy they are sent to their first control facility.  There they are required to memorize all the navigational aids (NAVAIDs) , airways, airports, air traffic procedures and regulations, frequencies and airspace requirements pertinent to their area of responsibility (AOR).

Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) cover several states each and are split into geographical specialties, each containing from 5 to 10 high and low altitude sectors.  Controllers familiarize themselves with the general picture for the entire ARTCC airspace and study their specialty in greater detail.  They have to know basic information concerning each airport, traffic management patterns, military and civilian approach controls, restricted airspace, and minimum safe altitudes.  There are only 26 ARTCC’s in the United States.

The airspace belonging to Approach Controllers is smaller geographically (with the possible exception of SoCal Approach in California), but their knowledge of the area is more detailed.  They must know the complexities and options of their approach and departure procedures, the ground traffic movement on the airports, the locations and services of government offices and FBO’s on the airport.

There are hundreds of Towers across the country – some of them are run by the FAA and some are privatized.  The pay scale is dependent on how many aircraft land at the airport annually.  They have 12 levels of traffic.  Most new hires start at the lower levels and can bid their way upwards.  Of course that means you have to move to a new location each time you upgrade your salary.  One thing to keep in mind, the higher the salary, the more complex the traffic.

Flight Service specialists are required to know much the same basic information as the Center and Tower controllers, plus they are required to be certified in interpretation of weather for use in pilot weather briefings by the National Weather Service.  There are only Three Major Flight Service facilities in the nation – one is near Washington DC, one in Fort Worth, TX and one in Prescott Valley, Arizona.  Each of them handles most of the briefing and radio calls for a third of the nation.  As technology is evolving, Flight Service staffing is being reduced because pilots now have a lot of self-briefing options.

In all cases, prior to working operations, a training team meeting between the specialist’s supervisor, a training department representative, the primary instructor and secondary instructor is held with the specialist.  After a few weeks of classroom time, the trainees sit with specialists actively working the position for a period of time to observe and become accustomed to the methods used.

On the job training (OJT) usually begins during off peak traffic so that the trainee has time to orient himself with the equipment and procedures.  This allows the instructor to point out techniques and options for various situations.  When the trainee is ready, he is plugged into heavier traffic times.  Normally the trainee works through and checks out on one position at a time.

The OJT instructor plugs his headset into the override on the trainee’s position.  This allows him to key up and take over should the trainee falter. He then sits behind the trainee monitoring every word with a clipboard in his hands.  You have to get used to someone looking over your shoulder!

The salaries earned in this profession are generous.  They align to the federal scales.  You start at $18,343 while in the academy and as you finish each step of training you work your way up.  The median Full Performance Level (FPL) salary is over $120,000 annually.  Centers, TRACONs and a few Towers have the highest paygrades.

What is required to become an ATCS?  To enter the Tower, TRACON, or Center options you can still, as of the printing of this book, meet the following qualifications: You must have at least 3 years of progressively responsible full time work experience in any field or a bachelor’s degree, and be under the age of 31.  You must be a U.S. Citizen and be able to speak English clearly.

Then you must take the ATC exam, which is only scheduled a few times a year by the US Office of Personnel Management.  Although the government in general considers 70% to generally be a passing grade, most people will not be invited into the academy unless you score 90% or over.

If you do score well, the FAA may call you for an interview. They will also require a medical exam by an authorized FAA doctor, a psychiatric exam, a drug test and a security/background check.  The medical exam has stringent vision and hearing tests.  (NOTE:  if you have a physical handicap that requires you to be in a wheelchair you can still work in all except the tower options – that one requires a lot of stair climing)

After you have done this, your name is put on a list. When a position becomes open in one of the ATC options you have requested consideration for, in a part of the country you have already stated you would be willing to work, they will call and ask you to accept that position.  Your odds are better if you pre-designate that you will work in any option, anywhere in the country.  When you achieve full performance level (FPL), you can bid to move to other facilities.

If you want more information you can check out the FAA website at  Flight Service is not hiring at this time.  When they do it will be advertised on their website

Women make great air traffic controllers.  It is a job that requires keeping track of many things at once, staying calm in emergencies and making quick, accurate decisions.  If this is how you see yourself, it may be the job for you.

What Makes a Good Controller?

I have often had requests from people interested in ATC as a career about what qualities make a good controller, and what could they expect if they are hired.  The answers involve divining interesting personal information about the types of people that make good controllers.  In 1983 when I started with Air Traffic, the Civil Aeronautical Medical Institute (CAMI) was giving the trainees ongoing tests to try to determine who would be able to make it through the training and become a controller and who would not.

As we went through the academy, every single test we took had “CAMI” questions woven into the test.  These questions had no real correct answer and were not counted in the grades, but you never knew which ones they were because they pertained to the material.

I do not know if CAMI ever discovered their “perfect” profile for a successful controller or not.  I can tell you that whether someone made it through the training or not, there did not seem to be any rhyme or reason personality wise.  I have worked with some people who were highly intelligent, and some who seemed like backwoods hicks, some with Doctorates and some who just skimmed through school and some average people who worked in a totally unrelated field before taking the ATC exam.  (Like me).  The only thing the successful people had in common was that they could “see” traffic, apply the rules correctly, and make decisions and follow through on them efficiently.  Most of them are also the types that you want around in an emergency.

The training requires you to learn how to be totally confident in yourself.  I walked in the door with no knowledge of ATC at all.  I made it through the academy and spent the next two years training at Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center.  After the academic portion, you spend hours every day with someone sitting behind you with a clipboard writing down every misspoken word and notating any procedural errors.  If you cannot take criticism – this will drive you nuts. As you master each sector you “check out” on the sector and your training on other sectors is interspersed with working the positions you are now qualified on to work alone.

What’s the difference between options?  ARTCC’s are a big dark rooms full of radar scopes and computers.  Each ARTCC controls a large portion of airspace.  Albuquerque ARTCC controls the area from west Texas almost to the California border and from Mexico to Colorado/Utah.  The airspace is divided into specialties (north, Southwest, Southeast, East, etc).  The specialties are divided into sectors – high altitude and low altitude covering a specific portion of the area.  As a trainee you are assigned to a specialty.    ARTCC controllers make the most money in ATC and is considered the highest stress option – both because it is the most difficult to check out in and because the traffic is usually fairly dense.  The ARTCC’s in Albuquerque, Denver, and Salt Lake have the lowest traffic count/less stress.  East and west coast are highest traffic count/stress.  If you are an adrenaline junkie who thrives on challenges – this is where you want to be.

Air Traffic Control Towers (ATCT) have a lot of various levels, and if I’d known what I know now when I started, I probably would have moved in that direction first.  Usually you start in a lower level to get your ticket, then if you want to move or earn a higher paycheck you bid on towers with higher levels of traffic.  The only bad part is that every time you change facilities, you also go through training again, but the assumption is that if you have become a full performance level controller (FPL) at a lower level facility, you have the basic skills needed to learn a new area.   Many level 1 and 2 towers are now privatized, so the FAA will start trainees in level three towers.

Many of the older flight service (FSS) people, like myself, worked in other types of  facilities first and then moved laterally.  Flight Service requires a larger knowledge base than the others.  All specialists must be certified as pilot weather briefers by the National Weather Service.  We have to know the geography of a large area as well as the airport and ATC information for every airport in our sectors. We talk to pilots both on the ground prior to their flights as well as in the air.  We are the ones who begin search and rescue for pilots who do not show up at their destinations.  We help airport managers and others formulate and disseminate NOTAMs.

Some of the peripheral qualities that ATC training imparts include keeping your mind both focused on one thing while simultaneously hearing everything going on around you.  The instructions that the controller next to you are giving an aircraft may have a direct bearing on a decision you are about to make.   It tends to overlap into daily life…without really listening for it you register conversations in the background in restaurants.

A fellow controller pointed out to me that some other qualities that are shared among most ATC specialists include:  A strong tolerance for highly repetitive work, a perfectionist streak, or at least a need for accuracy, the ability to handle multiple external stimuli at once, reliable spatial visualization capability, and a stellar short term memory.

The requirements to get into any of the ATC fields have changed a lot since I hired on, but once in the door the training requirements are about the same.  It is much easier to check out in FSS and Tower then in an ARTCC, but the end reward in ARTCC is a higher paycheck than the others. So, part of choosing which direction to go revolves around how much you see yourself earning.  I know that both the FAA, who runs the towers and ARTCC’s, and Leidos Inc., who runs the FSS program are now recruiting from certain universities that offer aviation degrees and that this is preferred pathway to employment.  When you are first hired on you are required to pass an interview, a psychological test, a physical, and a security check.  At this time there is also an age requirement for ARTCC and Tower work – you cannot be any older than 31.  FSS has no age restrictions.

Everyone has heard that ATC is stressful.  The reality is that the stress levels are directly related to two things:  the density of the traffic, and whether or not you like your job.  A person who is money oriented will go for the high traffic facilities because of the higher paychecks, but there are others who prefer to get a “good” paycheck at a facility that isn’t as busy.    Some people are hired into the job and do it well, but really don’t like it but the money is so good they don’t feel they can quit.

As long as security levels are low you can usually visit the various ATC facilities by calling and making an appointment for a tour. You will need to give them some identification.  Tell whoever answers the phone that you are thinking of a career.  When you call an ARTCC ask for the Human Relations person – who will also have the latest info on how to get into the job.

One more thing to know.  All air traffic branches are required to work under a Union.  ARTCC and Federal Towers are represented by the National Air Traffic Control Association or NATCA.  Flight Service is under the International Association of Machinists (IAM)

Whether you are forced to actually pay union dues or not depends on what state you live in.  Regardless, you have no vote if you are not a member and must work by their rules regardless.  There are pluses and minuses to unions – and everyone is passionate about them – for or against.

These are all personal observations, but I hope they give you some insights.

Rose Marie