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What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

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career planning
By Sakina Taher
Published on November 10, 2022

If you want to know how to become an air traffic controller, read on to learn more about how studying at a US university can be an exciting first step.

What does an air traffic controller do? Air traffic controllers are responsible for the safety of millions of airline passengers every day, coordinating and monitoring the smooth movement of private and commercial aircraft during all aspects of takeoff, in-flight journeys, and landing. It is a specialized sector of aviation that rewards skilled aviation professionals with generous salaries and benefits. 

Read on to learn more about what is an air traffic controller, how to become an air traffic controller, and which air traffic controller degree is required for your desired career.

What Is an Air Traffic Controller?

What does an air traffic controller do? A basic air traffic controller job description covers coordinating and managing the movement of air traffic. This includes directing aircraft during takeoff and landing at airports, ensuring safe distances are maintained between aircraft, guiding pilots during bad weather, and more.

Air traffic control involves a well-synchronized set of operations: From departure to arrival, there are many zones an aircraft passes through and precise coordination is required throughout the journey. Air traffic controllers are responsible for safe movement through these zones at a variety of points. Airports, for example, are located in zones known known as TRACON airspaces (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol). 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a key enterprise regulating the air traffic control system in the US. As an air traffic controller, you may be employed in the following divisions of the overall operation:

  • Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC)

  • Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC)

  • Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

  • Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT)

  • Flight Service Station (FSS)

When aircraft fly through the divisions, it is the air traffic controller who communicates with the pilot, offering guidance and instruction. There are many different types of air traffic controller roles within these divisions, with varying air traffic controller job descriptions. For example, a flight data controller reviews weather conditions and flight plan before takeoff, while a ground controller manages air traffic at gates and the runway. 

What Are the Types of Air Traffic Controllers?

Knowing “what is an air traffic controller?” and “what does an air traffic controller do?” gives you a better understanding of the types of air traffic controller roles you can apply for once you earn a US university degree. A specific type of air traffic controller is employed in all the divisions of the system and flight components — the aerodrome (e.g., the location where aircraft flight operations take place), departure, descent, and landing. 

Let’s take a look at air traffic controller job descriptions and positions you can consider with an air traffic control degree.

Aerodrome Controller

An aerodrome controller, also known as tower controller, operates within the radius of the airport, monitoring all air traffic. Working at the control towers at airports, aerodrome controllers have a good all-around view of the airport’s airspace and are responsible for moving aircraft safely around it, between runways, and stands. 

Flight Data/Clearance Controller

The flight data/clearance controller is responsible for reviewing and clearing flight plans before aircraft approach the runway. Flight clearance controllers play an important part in highlighting the conditions of the flight including weather, times and route toward the runway, and minimum altitude the pilot must maintain to prevent collisions.  

Ground Control

A ground controller is responsible for all air traffic on the tarmac. This includes aircraft taxiing from the gates to takeoff runways and from landing runways to the gates. Once the ground controller approves an aircraft, the pilot is directed to maneuver it, with the ground controller observing all the airport’s traffic and using ground radar to track and ensure aircraft do not cross an active runway or interfere with ground vehicles. Once the plane reaches the designated takeoff runway, the ground controller passes air traffic management to the local controller.

Local Control

It’s the local controller’s job to make sure a safe distance is maintained between aircraft while taking off. Using surface radar, the local controller is in charge of monitoring the airfield and giving final clearance for a pilot to take off. Once the pilot takes off, the local controller shares the new radio frequency to the departure controller, handing the aircraft electronically to the departure controller at the TRACON facility that services the departure airport until it passes a five-mile radius.

Approach Controller

An approach controller is responsible for guiding a pilot to a safe descent and landing. Information on the aircraft’s heading, speed, altitude, and other factors are shared between the approach controller and pilot. Keeping other flight schedules and ground traffic information in mind, the approach controller’s role is to enable a smooth transition for the aircraft to land safely.

Each aircraft control position plays a critical role to make sure a pilot has a safe journey from the departing airport to arrival. The working environment, salaries, and schedules may vary depending on what does an air traffic controller do in their designated division and the specific air traffic controller job description.

What Is the Work Environment of an Air Traffic Controller?

An air traffic controller’s role is highly specialized. Based on the position, at the airport or TRACON facility, air traffic controllers may work in control towers, approach control facilities, or route centers that guide and support pilots. The challenging work environment and immense responsibility require good communication skills and the ability to make quick decisions. 

Here are a few factors that influence what it’s like to work in air traffic control.

Facilities

Air traffic control facilities are equipped with technology that assists controllers in guiding planes to and from destinations safely and efficiently. Let’s take a look at a few types of facilities, their functions, and the types of equipment. 

  1. Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility (TRACON)— In a TRACON facility, controllers work in an instrument flight rules (IFR) control room with radar display consoles, communications control equipment, and transmitters, among other high-tech equipment. 

  2. Area Control and Surveillance Facility (ACSFAC) — At an ACSFAC facility, you may work with surveillance technology including radar surveillance to air, surface, and subsurface units.

  3. Joint Control Facility (JCF) — At this workspace, you may be positioned in a high-density air traffic facility that handles the approach control responsibilities of two or more facilities in one area.

  4. Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) — In the tower, controllers are equipped with technology to support the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) of aircraft departing and approaching terminal areas and other aircraft operational areas.

  5. Air Traffic Control Tower Base Building — Here, controllers use equipment that supports IFR control of aircraft approaching or departing from the terminal radar facility or airport. You may also offer support to ground control during bad weather conditions.

Each facility has its own operational system and where you end up working will depend on your expertise and training. 

Work Schedules

The typical schedule of an air traffic controller is usually 40 hours of work for five days per week, in eight-hour shifts. In a situation where the facility is short-staffed, you may be required to work a few additional hours for a limited period of time. Because flights arrive and depart at all hours, you will likely work several night, weekend, and rotating shifts as well, depending on your availability and overall staffing requirements at the facility.  

As an air traffic controller, you can work for up to two hours at a time before taking a break. Breaks are required to enable air traffic controllers to remain alert and focused at all times while on duty and ensure flight safety. 

Pay

Air traffic controllers can earn lucrative salaries and benefits, which often increase as you gain more training and experience. An entry-level air traffic controller typically earns $49,908, varying by location, experience, and responsibility. 

The average annual pay for a highly experienced air traffic controller is $118,406 annually, going up to $182,000 depending on the facility, location, and employment terms. Earning an undergraduate degree from a top-ranked US university, especially in STEM fields, can offer in-depth technical knowledge and a well-rounded skillset that can help you secure a better salary and progress in your career. 

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for an air traffic controller is projected to grow by 1% from 2019 to 2029. Despite the limited employment growth in the near future, the specialized nature of what an air traffic controller does, along with the job security offered for high-performing air traffic controllers, could translate into demand for talented and dedicated air traffic controllers over time. There are 2,400+ average openings projected for the position each year. The demand for controllers may increase in 2029 with 4,360 vacancies expected to be filled. By that measure, this means that there may be a growth of 2.41% over the next few years!

How Do I Become an Air Traffic Controller?

Once you have an overview of what does an air traffic controller do, the next step is to understand how to become air traffic controller. The higher education system structure for air traffic control professionals can vary, but the first step involves identifying an air traffic controller degree or similar program that offers the knowledge and skills you need to start a career in your interested position. Consider applying for qualifications offered by the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program (approved schools include Jacksonville University). After you complete the program, you will likely be required to take exams and courses at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academy to obtain your license. 

Aviation degrees offer a range of transferable skills that can prepare you for many aviation industry jobs including air traffic control, aeronautical engineering, flight management, and more. With rewarding salaries, a challenging work environment, and the chance to build an international career, the field of aviation has many opportunities for you to explore.

If you need support choosing an aviation degree, a Shorelight advisor can guide you through the process. From comparing universities and programs, to understanding what is an air traffic controller and what does an air traffic controller do, Shorelight education counselors offer application assistance and discuss career development plans to give you a clearer idea of where to begin. Your career in air traffic control is in reach!

Speak to a Shorelight advisor today!