Thank an air traffic controller today

November 27, 2013

Maverick should've given this guy some more respect. (Paramount Pictures)

Two-and-a-half million people are going to try to fly someplace Wednesday. If you're one of those poor souls, you may be itching to strangle someone by the time you collapse into your shoe box of a seat. But, realistically? Our headaches as passengers — flight delays, long lines at security — mostly get sorted out before we board the plane.

Not so for air traffic controllers, many of whom are preparing for a high-stress day that's even worse this year due to a wintry storm that's battering the East Coast. Even as the rest of us sit down to a big turkey dinner on Thursday, many of the nation's 27,000 air traffic controllers will still be on duty.

Once a plane leaves the airport, responsibility for tracking it gets handed off to a local departure controller — a TRACON facility, for short — that monitors a wider area. There are dozens of these. Then, as the plane leaves the region, another facility, called an area control center (ACC), takes over. The process has to take place in reverse when the aircraft reaches its destination.

Air traffic control is a highly specialized industry, but it's also a shrinking one. By 2019, the country is expected to have shed more than 12,000 air traffic control jobs, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's because a huge share of the sector's workforce is about to retire.


(Federal Aviation Administration)

To head off a looming shortage of controllers, the FAA plans to hire more than 11,000 new workers by the decade's end. Becoming an air traffic controller can be a harrowing journey in itself. That's because there's really only one path to an ATC job if you haven't held one before, and it runs straight through the FAA. New ATC candidates spend years studying for the FAA's pre-employment exam; if they score below a 70, they have to wait another year to take the test. This wouldn't be quite so stressful if time weren't working against the candidates; most controllers get their first jobs in their 20s and work for only about 30 years before retiring.

In 2011, air traffic controllers famously made headlines when some were caught napping on the job because of their exhausting work schedules. The FAA introduced new regulations for work shifts to try to curb the problem.

ATC workers do get compensated pretty well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a starting controller's salary begins at $37,000 but quickly ramps up to a median of $108,000 a year.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a massive shift in air traffic technology that controllers will need to adapt to. For decades, the nation's air traffic control system has mostly relied on the same radar technology that told World War II-era controllers where their planes were. But now the FAA is rolling out upgrades that add satellite technology to the mix. This is useful in places where we can't build a radar tower — like in the middle of the ocean — but it also requires new standards, policies and procedures that controllers will need to learn in addition to doing their regular jobs.

Air traffic controllers are giving up their Thanksgiving to keep our pilots from crashing in mid-air. So whether you know one or not, let's make today Thank an Air Traffic Controller Day.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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