Steal This Job

Eye in the Sky: Air Traffic Controller

Steal This Job
Kieron Heflin (above) is an air traffic controller at Washington Dulles International Airport. (Holly J. Morris)
By Danny Freedman
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; 4:26 PM


JOB: Air traffic controller at Washington Dulles International Airport

SALARY: Average salary for government-employed controllers was $95,700 in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

WHAT HE DOES: Heflin rotates through several positions in the tower, all of which keep Dulles' runways and airspace free of gridlock and disaster. His duties include guiding airplanes from gate to runway and back -- "basically making sure that they don't run into each other" -- and keeping track of nearby air traffic below 3,000 feet. All this requires communicating with as many as 20 pilots. Directing planes through such so-called "frequency congestion" demands someone articulate, decisive and, well, controlling. "It's just hard for anybody to get a word in edgewise," said Heflin. "It's a lot of prioritizing."

WOULD YOU WANT HIS JOB? The work of a controller is undeniably hectic. The tower is a pilot's first call in emergencies, from heart attacks to mechanical problems to terrorism scares. It all requires a certain degree of chill: "I don't think you can do this job effectively if you're worried about it," said Heflin. And weather is a constant nuisance, closing traffic lanes in the sky and making pilots irritable.

HOW YOU CAN GET HIS JOB: The Federal Aviation Administration will be hiring thousands of controllers through 2014, when it estimates 73 percent of its nearly 15,000 controllers will have become eligible for retirement. If you're under 31, are a U.S. citizen and can meet FAA health requirements, you can apply to the 16-week FAA Academy. A degree from one of 14 FAA-approved colleges or universities or experience as a military controller (Heflin was in the Navy) can make you a more desirable candidate, said an FAA spokesman. Once placed at an airport, it could take up to four more years to complete the training.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Federal Aviation Administration.

This article first appeared in the Express on February 7, 2005.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company