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It has been called the most stressful job in the world. One mistake by an air traffic controller — one moment of forgetfulness — one slip of the tongue could mean disaster. Yet, most controllers can’t imagine doing anything else. – Discovery Channel Documentary on Air Traffic Controllers


The air traffic controller career path is a particularly interesting profession when looking at it from the perspective of required education, longevity, compensation, and society and economic importance. Air traffic controllers are responsible for thousands of human lives each day and are the backbone of an economic engine that fuels commerce. One need only to look back at the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and remember how our skies were empty and the economic toll that took on our economy to realize how important it is to maintain a safe and orderly network of aviation highways.

Though they play such an integral role in our society and shouldered with tremendous levels of responsibility, this is a profession that does not require a four-year degree from a traditional college. Yet, it is one of the highest paying jobs in the world with the average air traffic controller earning more than $100,000 a year.

Generally speaking, it is the job of an air traffic controller to coordinate arrival and departure of planes, give recent weather updates to the pilots, issue landings and takeoffs, authorize path changes on flights, monitor movement using radar equipment, and alert any response staff in the case of an emergency. Controllers manage many airplanes at once, calling for quick decision making and a calm personality capable of tolerating extreme levels of stress. Air traffic controllers are considered the most important people in an airport, as it is their job to ensure the safety of all of the passengers aboard the planes.

Three Types of Air Traffic Controllers

There are three different kinds of air traffic controllers: tower controllers, TRACON controllers and en route controllers.

Tower Controllers

The first are called tower controllers. These specific personnel direct movement of the planes on the runway. They will give pilots clearance for both takeoff and landing, they will check flight plans periodically, and they will direct the movements of planes that are on the runway or in other parts of the airport. Most tower controllers work from buildings called air traffic control towers, which are usually very prominent and highly visible structures at most airports. These controllers are the, so to speak, “eyes in the sky” for all of those below.

TRACON Controllers

Terminal Radar Control (TRACON) is responsible for the 30-50 nautical mile area surrounding each airport. TRACON houses air traffic controllers responsible for bringing safety and order to the chaotic environment that envelopes an airport when dozens of planes seeking to land and depart near simultaneously. The few minutes after take-off and right before landing are the most dangerous and it is during this time that an airplane collision is most likely to occur.

TRACON controllers, sometimes referred to as radar approach and departure controllers, are there to ensure that all planes keep a minimum and safe distance away from one another while in the airspace above the airport. It is also the job of these controllers to sequence arrivals and departures, guide pilots while in takeoff and landing, monitor flight paths using radar equipment, and provide all of the pilots with vital information regarding the conditions of the weather. If you are interested in the air traffic controller career path, you have probably seen the movie “Pushing Tin” with John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie. Cusack and Thornton both play air traffic controllers working out of the New York TRACON.

En Route Controllers

En route controllers, as their name states, are controllers that guide the planes while they are in between arrivals and departures, takeoffs and landings. There are twenty one air traffic control centers located in America, and these employees can work at any one of them. Each of the twenty one centers is given airspace to look after based upon the geography and altitude of the area in which it is located. If two planes are closing in on one another, the en route controller may change the altitude of one plane to avoid another. En route controllers, while they have the longest length of travel time to look after, generally have an easier job than those who must command arrivals and departures, which happen to be the trickiest parts of piloting.

Additionally, some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. It is the job of these special controllers to look for traffic patterns that may create bottlenecks in the system; avoiding these means avoiding traffic jams.

The day-to-day “grind” of an air traffic controller doesn’t really exist because each day is so much different than the next when you realize the tens of thousands of factors that will impact the daily routine of this profession. Be it a significant weather event, a major power outage or a plane that is in emergency distress and requiring immediate authority to land, each day is filled with uncertainty and unexpected challenges.

If you are interested in learning more about being an air traffic controller, has additional articles for you to read and review.

Air Traffic Controller Salary

Air Traffic Controller School

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Job Outlook for Air Traffic Controllers

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