The National Airspace System (NAS), managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is designed to safely and efficiently move air traffic cross country and at terminal facilities. The FAA staffs 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), over 150 Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities (TRACONs) and Air Traffic Control Towers (ATCTs) located at major airports throughout the country and U.S. Territories. This vast network ensures the safe operation of commercial and private aircraft in the United States and international airspace assigned to U.S. control.
Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe separation in air and on the ground at terminal facilities. They also coordinate all ground traffic at FAA ATCT airports including vehicles used by airport authorities, airlines, fire equipment, and system specialists that must have access to airport runways for maintenance and various other purposes.
Their primary and immediate concern is safety however they must also work efficiently to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic through designated airspaces; others regulate airport arrivals and departures.
The FAA hires air traffic controllers as retirements occur or individuals leave for other reasons or are promoted and leave the active controller workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increase from 18,739 controllers today to 22,400 by 2022. The median salary is $122,950 a year or $59.11 per hour. Air traffic controllers and other FAA employees are in a core compensation pay band system instead of the competitive service’s General Schedule (GS) pay system. The job series preface is FG instead of the GS you typically see on the USAJOBS.GOV site. New hires without prior air traffic control experience must be 30 years of age or younger.
There are three paths to employment one of which is passing the Air Traffic Selection and Training Aptitude Test (AT-SAT). This test is an eight-hour computer based pre-employment test that is used by the FAA to measure aptitude required for entry-level air traffic control specialist positions.
Interview with Danielle Richards (Day in the life of an air traffic controller)
Danielle Richards began her career in 2008 when she reported to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City to begin training to become an air traffic controller. After training, she reported to the FAA ATCT at LaGuardia Airport in New York. She completed on-the-job training and became a Certified Professional Controller at LaGuardia Tower. Richards later transferred to the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in Virginia in 2012. She recently returned to LaGuardia Tower as an Operations Manager. Her job series is FG- 2152, however, air traffic employees are not in the traditional grade structure for federal employees, the pay band is KJ.
Why did you become an Air Traffic Controller?
The truth is I knew nothing about air traffic control. My father had a friend who had a friend who was a controller, and that’s how I found out about it. The application test was open to the general public back in 2007 and 2008. My father persistently was asking me, “did you apply yet” that finally convinced me to take the test. Little did I know that it would be the best decision that my father convinced me to make!
What are some of the unique aspects of being an Air Traffic Controller?
Air Traffic Control is unique. The air traffic control community is much smaller than you might think. Before I became an air traffic controller, I never met anyone in the field. Now it seems like controllers are everywhere. Every time I meet a new controller, they either know, worked with, or have heard of someone I know.
You have to love air traffic and be respectful of the great responsibility you have been given. People who don’t even know who you are trust you, and in many cases they don’t even know what controllers really do. Pilots and the flying public trust controllers despite the fact that they will never see you or meet you. It is very humbling when you think about it.
Air Traffic is never a one-person show. Everyone works together to get the job done. You build a trust with your co-workers that is critical. One more thing, timing is everything. You wouldn’t believe it, but in air traffic even a second or two makes a difference in the efficiency of your flight.
What are some of the challenges you face being an Air Traffic Controller?
A challenge that we face on a day-to-day basis is making quick decisions. There is no time for indecisiveness. Another challenge is that you are constantly multi-tasking. You have to focus on what you are doing while listening to another controller giving you instructions or information. However, the biggest challenge that I face is not taking the job home with me. If you think about all of the people’s lives that you touch in a day, a week or a year it can become overwhelming.
Are there any dangerous aspects involved with being an Air Traffic Controller?
Air travel is the safest mode of transportation. Safety is the top priority of every air traffic controller.
Would you recommend this as a good job occupation to for a prospective job applicant?
I would absolutely recommend this as a great occupation. If you want a career that is challenging and rewarding, that uses your strengths and develops your weaknesses; if you want to grow personally and professionally and have a career that you can be proud of doing every day, then Air Traffic Control is what you are looking for.
Air Traffic Controller’s Basic Requirements
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) specifies the following basic requirements for this position.
To become an air traffic controller, an applicant must
Be a U.S. citizen
Have a bachelor’s degree, or work experience, or a combination of education and experience totaling 3 years
Pass medical and background checks
Achieve a qualifying score on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pre-employment test, which includes a biographical assessment
Pass the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT)
Complete a training course at the FAA Academy (and start it before turning 31 years of age)
The AT-SAT is an 8-hour, computer-based exam. Some of the characteristics tested include arithmetic, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visualization, problem solving, and movement detection.
Controllers also must pass a physical exam each year and a job performance exam twice per year. In addition, they must pass periodic drug screenings.
Air Traffic Controller’s Job Description (FG-2152)
NOTE: The following information is excerpted from OPM’s GS-2152 job series qualification standards. Air Traffic controllers are in the excepted service and their core compensation pay bands are different than the standard GS pay scales listed here. The FAA assigns a pay band to each of these levels and the corresponding pay is derived from their pay tables. The job series preface is FG for the FAA. Use this information to understand the qualification requirements from entry level to a full performance air traffic controller.
Qualifications – Excerpted from opm.gov.
General Experience for GS-4 and GS-5
Progressively responsible experience that demonstrated the potential for learning and performing air traffic control work. Two years of such experience is required for GS-4 positions, and 3 years is required for GS-2152-5 positions.
Specialized Experience (GS-7 and above)
Experience in a military or civilian air traffic facility that demonstrated possession of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform the level of work of the specialization for which application is made. This experience must have provided a comprehensive knowledge of appropriate air traffic control laws, rules, and regulations.
Examples of specialized experience include:
For Station Positions: Providing information to pilots on such matters as weather, air routes, navigational aids, and airport conditions before and during flight. This specialization also requires:
Judgment to select only essential and pertinent information from a great mass of data;
Skill to present essential information to pilots clearly, concisely, and quickly before or during flight; and
Ability to act decisively in emergency situations.
For Terminal Positions: Issuing control instructions and advice to pilots in the vicinity of airports to assure proper separation of aircraft and to expedite their safe and efficient movement. This specialization also requires:
Ability to act decisively under stressful situations and to maintain alertness over sustained periods of pressure;
Skill to coordinate plans and actions with pilots and other controllers; and
Judgment to select and take the safest and most effective course of action from among several available choices.
For Center Positions: Controlling aircraft operating enroute along the airways to assure proper separation and safe and expeditious movement of such aircraft. This specialization also requires:
Skill to control aircraft operating at very high speeds over great distances;
Skill to arrange air traffic in patterns that assure maximum safety and minimum delay at points where such aircraft are “handed off” or transferred to other facilities or other sectors within the center; and
Judgment to estimate when and where traffic congestion will build to a point that necessitates changing patterns, and to plan accordingly.
For Research and Development Positions: Experience in a terminal, station, or center that demonstrated the ability or potential to:
Create, design, and/or develop new air traffic control systems or concepts; and
Analyze, test, and evaluate current or new air traffic control procedures, methods, systems, or concepts.
For Combination Positions: Positions involving a combination of the duties of two or more specializations require that applicants meet the qualification requirements for the appropriate specializations.
Up through GS-7, specialized experience in one specialization is fully qualifying for reassignment or promotion into another specialization. At GS-9 and above, experience and training in one specialization is qualifying for another specialization if the applicant’s total background indicates that he or she can gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities required in the new assignment after a reasonable period of orientation and training. All positions at the full performance level of each specialization require skill and training in the work of the specialization.
For all specializations, qualifying specialized experience must have provided the ability to:
Arrive quickly at well-reasoned solutions to complex problems;
Adjust quickly to different assignments, changing conditions, and workload fluctuations;
Remain calm and controlled during and after long periods of tension and fatigue; and
Speak rapidly, clearly, and distinctly.
Level of Experience: For each grade level, creditable experience must have equipped applicants with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform the full range of duties of the position for which application is being made. Such experience is typically demonstrated by accomplishment of assignments of the difficulty and responsibility described in the position classification standard used to evaluate positions at the next lower grade level in the normal line of promotion to the position being filled.
For GS-5 Positions: A full 4-year course of study leading to a bachelor’s degree meets the requirements for GS-5.
For GS-7 Positions: Superior academic achievement at the baccalaureate level or 1 full year of graduate study meets the requirements for GS-7.
Alternate Requirements for GS-7 Positions
Applicants who pass the written test qualify for GS-7 if they:
Hold or have held an appropriate facility rating and have actively controlled air traffic in civilian or military air traffic control terminals or centers;
Hold or have held an FAA certificate as a dispatcher for an air carrier;
Hold or have held an instrument flight rating;
Hold or have held an FAA certificate as a navigator or have been fully qualified as a Navigator/Bombardier in the Armed Forces;
Have 350 hours of flight time as a copilot or higher and hold or have held a private certificate or equivalent Armed Forces rating;
Have served as a rated Aerospace Defense Command Intercept Director; or
Meet the requirements for GS-5 and pass the written test with an appropriately higher score.
Maximum Entry Age
Under the provisions of 5 U.S.C. 3307, a maximum entry age has been established for Terminal and Center positions.
Applicants for competitive appointment and inservice placement to all positions in this series at GS-7 and below must pass a written test. A written test may also be required for positions above GS-7.
In addition to meeting all other requirements, applicants must demonstrate possession of the traits and characteristics important in air traffic control work. Applicants who qualify in the written test and/or meet the experience and training requirements will be required to appear for a pre-employment interview to determine whether they possess the personal characteristics necessary for performance of air traffic control work.
Additional Screening Requirements
Applicants who have passed the written test (and the interview, if required) may be required to pass additional air traffic control aptitude screening for positions in the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration. Persons who do not pass the aptitude evaluation testing requirements will not be appointed to these positions.
At all trainee and developmental levels, employees must learn the skills needed for operation at higher levels of responsibility. Failure of employees to meet training requirements for or accept promotion to higher grade air traffic control specialist positions may constitute grounds for reassignment, demotion, or separation from employment.
Certificate and Rating Requirements
Air traffic control specialists in all specializations must possess or obtain, within uniformly applicable time limits, the facility ratings required for full performance at the facility where the position is located.
Applicants must possess or obtain a valid Air Traffic Control Specialist Certificate and/or Control Tower Operator Certificate, if appropriate. These certificates require demonstrating knowledge of basic meteorology, basic air navigation, standard air traffic control and communications procedures, the types and uses of air navigation aids, and regulations governing air traffic.
Facility ratings require demonstration of a knowledge of the kind and location of radio aids to air navigation, the terrain, the landmarks, the communications systems and circuits, and the procedures peculiar to the area covered by the facility.
In general, air traffic control specialist applicants and employees must have the capacity to perform the essential functions of these positions without risk to themselves or others. The provision of sufficient information about physical capacity for employment requires that before appointment applicants undergo appropriate pre-employment physical/medical evaluations.
In our final article in our series on the FAA we will interview an airway transportation systems specialist (GS-2101).
Arlene Salac, Public Affairs Officer, Washington, D.C.
The information provided may not cover all aspects of unique or special circumstances, federal and postal regulations, and programs are subject to change. Our articles and replies are time sensitive. Over time, various dynamic human resource guidance and factors relied upon as a basis for this article may change. The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation and this service is not affiliated with OPM, the postal service or any federal entity. You should consult with school counselors, hiring agency personnel offices, and human resource professionals where appropriate. Neither the publisher or author shall be liable for any loss or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.
About The Author
A Pennsylvania native, Betty Boyd moved to the Tennessee Valley in 1994. She retired in early 2012 after 30 years of Government service. Boyd was an Acquisition Manager/IT Manager/ Project Manager during her 30-year career. Boyd also served as a supervisor and team leader during her career. In 2012 Boyd founded a consulting firm, Boyd Consulting Services, which offers writing services to clients and companies. For more information about these writing services see the following website: http://www.BettyBoydWriting.com/.
Betty attended Athens State University, Athens, AL and received a B.B.A. in Management of Technology in 2000. She received her Masters of Science degree from Syracuse University with a concentration in Information Management in 2007. Boyd is a certified Level III contracting professional and she received a Masters level certificate in Project Management from the National Defense University in 2008.