2017 Air Traffic Controllers
Median Pay: US$122,950
Entry Level: Associate's degree
Summary
Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that aircraft stay safe distances apart.
Duties

Air traffic controllers typically do the following:

  • Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots
  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, using radar, computers, or visual references
  • Control all ground traffic at airports, including baggage vehicles and airport workers
  • Manage communications by transferring control of departing flights to other traffic control centers and accepting control of arriving flights
  • Provide information to pilots, such as weather updates, runway closures, and other critical information
  • Alert airport response staff, in the event of an aircraft emergency

Air traffic controllers' primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor aircraft as they travel through the skies.

Controllers usually manage multiple aircraft at the same time and must make quick decisions to ensure the safety of the aircraft. For example, a controller might direct one aircraft on its landing approach while providing another aircraft with weather information.

The following are examples of types of air traffic controllers:

Tower controllers direct the movement of vehicles on runways and taxiways. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other traffic on the runways and in other parts of the airport. Most work from control towers, watching the traffic they control.

Approach and departure controllers ensure that aircraft traveling within an airport's airspace maintain minimum separation for safety. They give clearances to enter controlled airspace and hand off control of aircraft to en route controllers. They use radar equipment to monitor flight paths and work in buildings known as Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs). They also provide information to pilots, such as weather conditions and other critical notices.

En route controllers monitor aircraft once they leave an airport's airspace. They work at air route traffic control centers located throughout the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and altitude of the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches and flies through a center's airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route. They may adjust the flight path of aircraft to avoid collisions and for safety in general.

As an airplane goes along its route, en route controllers hand the plane off to the next center, approach control, or tower along the path, as needed. En route controllers pay special attention to aircraft as they descend and get closer to the busier airspace around an airport. They turn the aircraft over to the airport's approach controllers when the aircraft is about 20 to 50 miles from the airport.

Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. These controllers monitor traffic patterns within the entire national airspace. When they find a bottleneck, they provide instructions to other controllers, helping to prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airport and for en route controllers.

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