July 18, 2018
Air traffic control is a necessary responsibility in the ever-growing field of aircraft travel. Conducted by ground-based personnel, who have been trained and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), air traffic control responsibilities center on the monitoring of air traffic in a given area, specifically tower control, approach and departure control, and en route control.
"Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads," said Dr. Emmett Brown before his time-traveling car flies off in the movie Back to the Future (1985). When it comes to air travel (be it with aircraft or flying cars), roads might not be necessary. But because the skies are free of traffic lights, signs and pavement markings, air traffic management (ATM) is a must.
This is especially true given that the number of people and the amount of goods making their way through our global airspace continues to increase. From 2016 to 2036, the number of air passengers is expected to nearly double to approximately 7.8 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) 20-Year Passenger Forecast. In addition, reports the IATA, more than 51.2 million tons of freight were carried via aviation in 2015 alone.
Safe and efficient air transportation is achieved with ATM, "the connecting infrastructure that allows aircraft to fly safely between airports," writes Margaret Arblaster in "Air Traffic Management: Economic Regulation and Governance." The main function of ATM is air traffic control (ATC), defined by Arblaster as "the process of separation of aircraft in the sky as they fly and at airports where they land and take-off." Air traffic controllers are the professionals who make this process possible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In the United States, air traffic controller specialists are the trained personnel who "guide pilots, their planes and 2.2 million daily passengers from taxi to takeoff, through the air and back safely on the ground," according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates and oversees the nation's civil aviation.
The government's O*Net OnLine reports that air traffic controllers use their communication skills, critical thinking abilities and problem-solving capabilities to complete core tasks such as:
Whether working in a civilian or military capacity, nearly all air traffic controllers are employed by the federal government, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and they work at airports, air traffic control centers or flight service stations throughout the country.
The work is demanding in that there is "zero margin for error," per the FAA. But the tradeoff is a median annual wage of $124,540 in May 2017, according to the BLS.
In order to begin a career as an air traffic controller in the United States, you must meet the following minimum requirements, according to the FAA:
Most newly hired air traffic control specialist trainees are required to take the FAA's Air Traffic (AT) Basics course, a 200-hour, five-week course held at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. (Note: Some candidates may qualify to voluntarily skip the FAA-provided AT Basics Course if they have the appropriate prior education or prior experience. By skipping, they are "certifying to the FAA that you do not need to attend the AT Basics course before further training, and that you are solely responsible for knowing the AT Basics course objectives.") The AT Basics Course is a prerequisite before participants can pursue additional initial qualification training in one of three career tracks: en route, terminal tower, or terminal radar.
These tracks reflect the fact that air traffic controllers typically fall into three general career types that are responsible during the different stages of a flight:
When searching for air traffic management or air traffic control government jobs, look for titles such as (but not limited to) the following:
These and other positions represent opportunities ranging from entry-level to supervisory roles. As a result, each will have its own specific responsibilities, qualifications and education requirements in addition to the FAA's minimum requirements.
Finally, in order to kickstart or advance your career as an air traffic controller, check out the following professional organizations and associations:
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