Air Traffic Controller  What They Do

Just the Facts

Air Traffic Controllers Career Video

Insider Info

dotAir traffic controllers control the flow of aircraft traffic in the air and on the ground at airports.

dotThey issue radio instructions to pilots to make sure air traffic arrives and leaves the airport in a safe and orderly fashion.

dotA controller works with all kinds of pilots, from inexperienced student pilots in single-engine planes to seasoned airline pilots flying 747s.

dotAir traffic controllers also work at all kinds of airports. Some airports are busier than others. The busier an airport, the more stressful the job and the higher the pay. Yet, no matter where a controller works, stress comes with the territory.

Tim Schroeder is an air traffic controller who is no longer actively controlling. Now, he is an instructor with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Academy. According to Schroeder, comments from the field indicate high stress levels.

"It's not a consistent stress on a daily basis, but there will be 45-minute to two-hour periods that get very stressful."

Schroeder explains that airports operate under the "hub principle." The idea behind the hub principle is that airports work best when peak flight times are alternated with slow times.

This means that air traffic controllers can rest their nerves during slow times throughout the day. "Very few facilities that I know of would be able to maintain that type of [peak] level for a full eight-hour shift, for example. It's more like three or four high-stress periods during your eight-hour shift," he says.

dotAir traffic controllers have enormous responsibility for the safety of thousands of people at a time. The agency in charge of hiring air traffic controllers accepts only those people who can cope with this stress.

dotControllers do a lot of shift work. Air traffic control towers don't shut down at night -- neither do air traffic controllers.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Control all the planes flying into and out of airports

  • You must write aptitude tests and pass a medical exam to even be considered for this career
  • Controllers have responsibility for the safety of thousands of people at a time
  • Specialized training is available at a national school