The Real Poop
Ever wonder how the skies got so friendly (and not so…plane crashy)? It's all thanks to air traffic controllers, who direct planes on both the ground and in the air to prevent collisions and even almost-collisions (all while they are also optimizing speeds and distances between take-offs and destinations).
Let's be honest, we want those airplanes as far away from each other as possible. The ATC (Air Traffic Control) likes to refer to preventing air collisions as "separating" planes to keep them from coming too close to each other. Sounds like a video game. It ain't.
Actually, the responsibility it takes to ensure that thousands of passengers safely leave and meet their gate is one of the more stressful jobs on the planet. There's plenty of glory for the upside; and terrifying downsides that could happen. Air traffic controllers stare at green dots on a screen and are busy every minute of the day. People who tend to stare into space and daydream need not apply. Ahem. Are you listening?
The median salary for air traffic controllers is around $120,000 a year. Do we have your attention now? The pay is great. At its worst, an ATC is still making $65,000 a year—and if that's unsatisfying, you can adjust your work schedule to nights, Sundays, and holidays. Those are the times when you can really start earning the big bucks. No matter what, you're looking at a well-paid job and early retirement.
The goal of an air traffic controller is to help planes taxi from the terminal to the runway or vice versa, keep planes three to five miles apart in the air (and separate them vertically 1,000 feet or more when in the air), determine the routes that planes should fly, give pilots weather advice, and assist pilots during emergencies.
Air traffic controller jobs are not something that you can moonlight at while you're waiting for your band to make it.
Most air traffic controllers are employed and salaried by the federal government (specifically, by the Federal Aviation Administration). However, there are a number of controllers who work for the private air traffic control companies that serve non-FAA towers or the military.
You can't exactly waltz in one day and start directing air traffic, either. In fact, waltzing in their buildings is pretty much frowned upon, period. All controllers must go through training to receive an FAA-issued Air Traffic Control Certificate. If you want to work in the tower, you need a Control Tower Operator Certificate, too.
Certification shows that you know the ins and outs of basic air traffic control, meteorology, and procedures. Hope you think Oklahoma is okay, because your training will take place in Oklahoma City. That's if you make it into the twelve-week training course. Air training courses are only available to those who pass a security screening, drug test, and medical examination. Furthermore, you must be under the age of thirty-one to apply.
The FAA wants someone who has a four-year degree or three years of work experience. You must also score seventy or higher on their FAA pre-employment test. Fail the test the first time and you need to wait a year to be retested. Get the testing jitters the second round and you may not be able to retake the test if you score under seventy. Sounds stressful. Welcome to the life of an air traffic controller.
One major perk is that you may get a coveted position at an awesome tropical location. Break out the sun tan lotion. The FAA employs controllers in Hawaii, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa (where they definitely make those Girl Scout cookies).
Air traffic controllers may also contact a particular region that tickles their fancy to find employment. If you've always dreamed of living next to a salmon farm in Alaska, you're in luck. Air traffic controllers have a lot of mobility once they've gained experience.
Aside from being able to work nearly anywhere you want, you can also expect frequent breaks throughout the day. To keep controllers from folding under the stress of a regular workday, they are given a break every two hours. The name of the game when controlling air traffic is remaining fresh and alert throughout the day.
If you want badly to be around airplanes, but would rather not be in them (maybe you have a fear of flying, or maybe you just tried and failed to obtain your pilot's license a zillion times), you may want to consider air traffic control.
It takes intense, constant focus, and a passion for saving/preserving human life is a nice bonus that will keep you interested. It's nice to be able to take pride in what you do. Yeah, the stress is on the high end...but what's life without a few heart palpitations, eh?