Air Traffic Control Frequently Asked Questions

I've decided to create a post for all you Googlers out there with all the questions. Here is a list of the most frequently asked questions related to air traffic control.

1. How much do Air Traffic Controllers earn?

This has to be the number one most asked question. How much do we earn? Similar salary questions that come up are how much do air traffic controllers start out with? And what are the ATC pay levels?

I've covered this in previous posts and listed Australian air traffic controller pay scales. For my international readers you can pretty much convert these dollars into your local currency and it's gonna be pretty close to the mark. Generally speaking a fully rated air traffic controller on the top pay scale is going to earn on average 125-150k a year. Here in Australia the pay scales start in the low 60's for a freshly rated controller and are around 145k at the top level in Sydney.

2. A day in the life of an Air Traffic Controller.

This isn't really a question, but it is a query that is entered into Google a lot. People want to know what it's like being a controller.

Well not much different to any other job really. We do shift work. Some air traffic controllers work a twenty four hour rotating roster, like those working in the centres as enroute controllers and capital city towers. Others (like me) don't. I am currently working at an outstation tower. We open at 7am. Close at 8.15pm local. In Australia we work a 36 hour week and at the end of the day, work gets left at work.

Air Traffic Control has been associated with stress, but I believe it is manageable. You do need to be able to work under pressure and make quick and accurate decisions. Air Traffic Control is a very dynamic environment. Things can happen quickly.

I would recommend Air Traffic Control to anyone who likes to constantly challenge themselves, enjoys problem solving and displays confidence. The latter is not necessarily required but it is a common trait shown across the industry.

3. How to become an Air Traffic Controller

For Australian residents you can get all these details from my previous post here. For international readers visit your local Air Traffic Control provider's website and I guarantee you will find an employment opportunities link.

Generally speaking applicants will be required to have completed the Higher School Certificate. In Australia the first step when applying is completing the online aptitude tests. The second step for successful applicants is then attending a testing day where you do similar tests again under examination conditions. Step three is your interview.

Applicants deemed suitable will then be sent to Melbourne to study. Twelve months later you will be in the field training on the job for your first rating. Achieve your first rating and you will then receive your air traffic controllers licence.

These three questions are by far the most common. I will update this post as more questions roll in.

Good Luck

FAA Air Traffic Controller Numbers At 15 Year Low

It's official, the total number of national Air Traffic Controllers is at a 15 year low according to a report from the NATCA. The year 2007 has seen a record number of Air Traffic Controllers retire resulting in a shortage 33% higher than that projected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The shortage is not only having an overall effect on staffing, but is also impacting on new recruits, many of whom have no air traffic control experience, and are unable to receive an efficient and effective training program. Currently, there are 3618 trainees in the system. Approximately one third of the trainees are not certified on any position and cannot work alone. Many of the facilities have more trainees on staff, than there are resources to train them. For example Miami Centre has 102 trainees, comprising 34 per cent of total staffing. Sixty Two of these trainees have had no functional training and the backlog resulting in a waiting period of up to 16 months for any real training. Because of these conditions 9 trainees have quit this year.

The number of retirees represented 7.4% of the total air traffic control workforce. A grand total of 856 (16 0f which were mandatory) retirements in the fiscal year 2007. This being the forth straight year the FAA has come up short in their predictions.

The NATCA says it's no surprise, they predicted a surge of Air Traffic Controller retirements in response to the FAA's imposition of work rules and pay cuts on September 3, 2006. It is also reported that Air Traffic Controllers have been without a contract for a period of now well over 430 days. Research of this topic suggests it was only in September 2006, the FAA commenced a drive to cut the number of Air Traffic Controllers nationally by 10 percent below negotiated levels. Now 14 months later controller numbers are at situation critical.

And things are only getting worse. There has been an increase in the use of mandatory overtime, combined radar and tower control positions resulting in exhausted, over stressed and burnt out controllers.

"This is a problem entirely of the FAA making. It didn't have to happen. We do not have a contract and that is taking a very serious toll on the controller workforce and the nation’s aviation system."

NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. "Only once in our nation’s history have we seen conditions in our air traffic control facilities that are as acrimonious, overworked, overstressed, demoralized and angry as we do today and that was in the period leading up to the 1981 PATCO strike. There is only one possible solution to this crisis: We must have a contract. Veteran controllers must have an incentive not to retire early at age 50 or before and to use the six-plus years of service they have left before mandatory retirement to keep the system running today and train tomorrow's controllers without being burned out and driven to total exhaustion".

In addition to the 856 retirements of air traffic controllers there were 201 resignations, 126 removals, 10 deaths and an amazing 365 promotions to FAA supervisory roles (double the FAA predictions). With no contract and the FAA work rules and pay bands in place, taking a supervisory position is the only way a fully certified air traffic controller can earn a pay rise, receive cash bonuses and avoid mandatory overtime.

NOTE: In Australia, combining Radar and Tower air traffic control positions is not only unheard of, but would be considered unsafe to do so by any reasonable standards.

Airservices Australia Voted Worlds Best Air Traffic Services Provider

Airservices Australia has been voted the worlds best provider of Air Traffic Control by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for the second time. Airservices Australia previously won the award in 1999. The latest award reinforces the company's reputation as one of the most consistently high-performing businesses in the global aviation industry.

The "Eagle Award" recognises the significant value Airservices Australia is adding to help airlines deliver on-time performance safely, effectively and efficiently.

This award and our unmatched safety record is a credit to the Air Traffic Controllers across Australia.

FAA's Comments on Near Miss In Chicago Last week

After further investigation of the near miss resulting from Air Traffic Control error over Indiana on Tuesday, between a Midwest Airlines Regional Jet and a United Express aircraft, it appears the FAA are playing the incident down. John Diedrich reports the FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory, stated "We're not calling it a near miss". Although Elizabeth also admitted in the interview that "this event definitely violated our separation standards".

The FAA confirms reports that the two aircraft came as close as 1.3 miles horizontally, and 600 feet vertically with the aircraft's Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) resolving the conflict. The horizontal proximity being almost one fifth of the minimum standard of 5 miles and almost half the vertical standard of 1000 feet.

The fact that the Federal Aviation Administration would make such a comment is not so surprising. They display the same attitude when it comes to their staffing crisis. As reported in my previous post, the FAA believe "staffing levels were adequate" even though Air Traffic Controllers complain of fatigue and over work. A member of the Chicago Controllers Association believes the FAA was not prepared for the high number of retirements of controllers. Three controllers a day retire nationally and three a month locally which has resulted in the shortage.

The "near miss" over Indiana is unfortunately not an isolated case, with three incidents since October 1 in the Chicago facility. Air Traffic controllers in the Chicago region and elsewhere have said "they were weary and more error-prone after having to work repeated six day weeks". Joseph Belinno from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association says the chances are "pretty good" that controller error will increase at busy times. "Any time you have people on six day work weeks it always increases".

Near Miss In Chicago Last Week

I recently read a report of a near miss over northern Indiana between a United Express and Midwest Airlines aircraft. It appears the incident was due to an error by Air Traffic Control.

I'm sure all the Air Traffic Controllers from FAA will be pleased to read that a Federal Aviation "Official" commented that "staffing levels were adequate despite controllers' complaints of fatigue and over work".

This comment is in complete contradiction to the following news clip I found on Youtube titled "FAA: Unsafe staffing: Air Traffic Controller Fatigue." from April 12, 2007. Government regulators say "Tired controllers are putting people in danger".

It reports on an Air Traffic Controller on his second shift in a 24 hour period, was working on only two hours sleep when an aircraft taxied onto the wrong runway last August resulting in a fatal accident killing 49 people. NTSB reports that this Kentucky crash is "hardly the only example of troubling controller fatigue".

I was also shocked to learn that Air Traffic Controllers working for the FAA can work 4, ten hour shifts in three days as long as they have an eight hour period between shifts! NTSB is urging the FAA to change the way Air Traffic Controllers are scheduled to give them longer rest periods between shifts. The FAA apparently welcomed the recommendation with a response of "Controllers need to play a role too".

My question is, if staffing levels are so adequate why are these controllers having to work constant six day weeks?

The incident on Tuesday night occurred when the Air Traffic Controller vectored the Midwest Airlines aircraft east, into the path of the United Express aircraft heading west out of Greensboro, N.C.

The only thing that saved a mid-air collision at FL250 was the aircraft's TCAS systems. The two aircraft coming within a proximity of 1.3 miles horizontally and 600ft vertically.

The required separation standard in this situation for Air Traffic Controllers here in Australia is 5 miles horizontally and at least 1000ft vertically.

Bouncing Airliner From Air China

I have found yet another hilarious video. This one was sent to me by email from an Air Traffic Controller I work with.

So far this takes the prize of most embarrassing landing so I couldn't resist posting it on my Youtube account. Way to Go Air China!

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View from Sydney Air Traffic Control Tower

I stole this Flash object from my company website. I'm sure they won't mind. It's a 360 degree view from Sydney ATC tower (they could have at least cleaned up the sink area!) and is pretty cool. Why would you want to do Air Traffic Control in a centre when you can look at this all day???

Ab-initio Air Traffic Control Tower Courses Discontinued Due Lack Of Staffing In The Centres

Airservices Australia have discontinued all Ab-initio Air Traffic Control Tower stream courses to push the numbers of controllers up in the centres.

Previously, newly recruited Air Traffic Controllers chose their stream of preference. Terminal Approach courses weren't available due to a high failure rate of ab-initios. There was however the choice of Tower or Enroute. This was made during the application process and applicants were then placed into the two groups for selection.

There are a number of factors that contributed to the discontinuation, and from conversations I've had with controllers from other country's the same problems are occurring across the globe.

One problem is the huge number of controllers retiring. It seems there is a large gap in the age department. Companies went through a large recruitment process a decade or more ago and boosted numbers and then for quite a while the process stopped. Now the older generation are approaching retirement age and numbers are falling dramatically if not already at critical stage.

Controllers in the centres are burning out, unable to take annual leave. Overtime is a weekly occurrence and I've even seen shifts being filled by management or staffing contingency plans being utilised.

It is clear that a lot of the enroute ATC have had enough by the number of them applying for tower positions across the country. Air Traffic Control Tower positions are in high demand and the competition is fierce. I really consider myself lucky to have won my recent application.

Still to this day I haven't received a transfer date. The staffing problems don't just stop in the centres, even in the Tower we have problems. Problems with people rating.

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but at my current location they haven't had an Air Traffic Control rate on the Procedural Approach position for over two years. One controller has been waiting for this whole duration for someone to rate so that he can have his position filled and transfer to the job he won in Brisbane in 2005!

So how will management fix the problem? I have no idea. I've only been in the Air Traffic Control industry for a few years and the whole time it seems to be getting worse. I think the company's priority at the moment is screwing us all over in other ways (salary related).

All I want to do is come to work and do my job well and go home.

FA-18 Hornets On Show

I completely forgot I had these images on file from last week. They were taken by a work mate from the tower balcony.

Apparently there was a reunion for members of the RAAF over the weekend. Half a dozen or so FA-18's (with pilots) rocked up for the occasion.

As the RAAF training academy is located at the airport these guys were pretty keen to put on a show. They held OCTA for 10 minutes until traffic cleared for a low level beat up over the academy. And man, did they have these things wound up!

It doesn't matter how many times I see a show like this, it's still just as enjoyable the next time.

The video clip below was taken with my camera phone so sorry about the image quality.

Here a a few more images from the occasion. I have to be honest though. Pictures of aircraft (even jets) don't quite have the same effect as watching the real thing.

Fedex Thunderstorm Ops Memphis

I just had to publish this Youtube video below.

I won't spoil the show by telling you all about it. Just watch it for yourself.

My favourite part is at the end when you can see them all holding and diverting. Hilarious. So is the soundtrack. They look like little ants bolting to their little ants nest.

Closing Time

There are a couple of great things about working at my current location.

The first and probably the best thing about it is we don't do doggo's (night shift for you 9 to 5'ers). Being an outstation tower we close for the night and the Control Zone becomes a CTAF. I have done my fair share of doggo's though in my previous job and it doesn't matter who you are, working nights is hard work. It's not natural to be up working those hours.

The second great thing for me is, because I'm still a Journeyman at my current location (I don't hold all the ratings) I don't work weekends. The tower is operated by a single controller on Saturday and Sunday. The academy's don't fly so there is next to no traffic. Just a few RPT and the usual weekend warriors.

The third great thing is that all the academies close up for the Christmas break! Meaning every year (as a Journeyman) I get two weeks off over Christmas/New Year. And because of all the public holidays I only need to take six days recreation leave to cover it.

If you are looking for a career as an Air Traffic Controller, these three points are something you really should take into consideration when choosing your stream. Trust me, being a Tower Controller is the way to go. The perks are endless.

When we are all kicking back enjoying the break next month, try to take a moment to think about those poor Enroute boys and girls slugging it out in the centres.

Then give yourself an uppercut and get back to reality and pop another bottle of red!