Air Traffic Controller Career Profile

Air traffic controllers have a unique role, unlike any other job in any other industry. Managing and controlling the movements of aircraft ranging from huge intercontinental aircraft to ultra light planes requires real skills and experience. Over any major airport on any day of the week, hundreds or thousands of lives are in the air traffic controller's hands.

The career path

In the US, intensive formal training, pre-employment tests and strictly maintained qualifications standards are imposed by the FAA (the main US employer) before an air traffic controller is able to even get a job. Air traffic controllers are usually required to have completed four years college or an equivalent mix of college and work experience.

Air traffic controllers start from the ground up, in terms of getting the required certifications for their role. It takes 2-4 years for a new controller to be fully qualified. They literally learn the job step by step, starting with flight data, moving up through ground control and eventually to flight control and traffic control at which stage the top level of qualification is an airport tower controller or terminal controller. During that time they receive a lot of practical experience including vital on the job certification training. This is a cumulative training program, covering all aspects of airport control functions. Air traffic controllers must pass all levels of certification. Those who fail to complete the required training are generally dismissed.

Air traffic controllers work in a very strictly monitored environment. Annual physical checks are required. Six monthly performance reviews are standard practice.

The work environment

Depending on the controller's role, it involves using a range of systems including radar, meteorological systems, and advanced plotting systems. In practice, each flight is covered by several flight controllers, a fail-safe system which allows comprehensive monitoring of flight movements. Air traffic controllers work as both directors and monitors of air traffic activity. They also operate as problem solvers and in-flight ground links to pilots, advising them about conditions, approach and departure issues, and in some cases emergency situations.

Coordination of air traffic involves dealing with multiple simultaneous situations and variable conditions in real time. Air traffic control teams (up to three people) are responsible for each flight assigned to them during its presence in their flight area. Responsibility may extend for a distance of up to 100 miles from the airport.

The average annual salary for air traffic controllers is about $120,000. Trainee and lower level controllers have a minimum salary range of approximately $60,000. The top salaries in the US are up to $150,000.

Working hours are set on a standardized 40 hour week, although this may vary in terms of local requirements, shift duties, overtime, and other considerations. In most cases the 24 hour operations are rostered on a rotating shift basis.

The industry gives several options for career advancement, which may include progression to administrative positions, specialist roles, and management, depending on qualifications and individual preferences.  Another career option is movement to international air traffic controller roles or other senior positions at higher levels.