The air traffic control specialists at FAA airport traffic control towers (terminals) direct air traffic so it flows smoothly and efficiently. The controllers give pilots taxiing and takeoff instructions, air traffic clearances, and advice based on their own observations and information received from the National Weather Service, air route traffic control en-route centers, flight service stations, aircraft pilots, and other sources. They provide separation between landing and departing aircraft, transfer control of aircraft on instrument flights to the en-route controllers when the aircraft leave their airspace, and receive control of aircraft on instrument flights coming into their airspace from controllers at adjacent facilities. They must be able to recall quickly registration numbers of aircraft under their control, the aircraft types and speeds, positions in the air, and also the location of navigational aids in the area.
Key tasks include:
- Inform pilots about nearby planes or potentially hazardous conditions, such as weather, speed and direction of wind, or visibility problems.
- Notify others of emergencies, problems, or hazards.
- Issue landing and take-off authorizations or instructions.
- Communicate with others to coordinate vehicle movement.
- Provide flight path changes or directions to emergency landing fields for pilots traveling in bad weather or in emergency situations.
- Respond to transportation emergencies.
- Transfer control of departing flights to traffic control centers and accept control of arriving flights.
- Coordinate flight control or management activities.
- Alert airport emergency services in cases of emergency or when aircraft are experiencing difficulties.
- Monitor or direct the movement of aircraft within an assigned air space or on the ground at airports to minimize delays and maximize safety.
- Direct pilots to runways when space is available or direct them to maintain a traffic pattern until there is space for them to land.
- Monitor aircraft within a specific airspace, using radar, computer equipment, or visual references.
- Direct ground traffic, including taxiing aircraft, maintenance or baggage vehicles, or airport workers.
- Contact pilots by radio to provide meteorological, navigational, or other information.
- Maintain radio or telephone contact with adjacent control towers, terminal control units, or other area control centers to coordinate aircraft movement.
- Determine the timing or procedures for flight vector changes.
- Adjust routes or speeds as necessary.
- Initiate or coordinate searches for missing aircraft.
- Direct emergency management activities.
- Provide on-the-job training to new air traffic controllers.
- Train transportation or material moving personnel.
- Check conditions and traffic at different altitudes in response to pilots' requests for altitude changes.
- Relay air traffic information, such as courses, altitudes, or expected arrival times, to control centers.
- Inspect, adjust, or control radio equipment or airport lights.
- Compile information about flights from flight plans, pilot reports, radar, or observations.
- Organize flight plans or traffic management plans to prepare for planes about to enter assigned airspace.
- Conduct pre-flight briefings on weather conditions, suggested routes, altitudes, indications of turbulence, or other flight safety information.
- Meet with coworkers to communicate work orders or plans.
- Analyze factors such as weather reports, fuel requirements, or maps to determine air routes.
- Choose optimal transportation routes or speeds.
- Review records or reports for clarity and completeness and maintain records or reports as required under federal law.
- Complete daily activity reports and keep records of messages from aircraft.
The controllers normally work a forty-hour week in FAA control towers at airports using radio, radar, electronic computers, telephone, traffic control light, and other devices for communication. Additional payment (called premium pay) is made for shift work involving duty between 6 o'clock p.m. and 6 o'clock a.m. and for work during Sundays and holidays. Merit promotions are awarded under provisions of a Civil Service approved merit promotion plan.
Shift work is necessary. Each controller is responsible, at separate times, for: giving taxiing instructions to aircraft on the ground, takeoff instructions and air traffic clearances, and directing landings of incoming planes. These individual duties are rotated among the staff about every two hours at busy locations. At busy times, controllers must work rapidly, and mental demands increase as traffic mounts, especially when poor flying conditions occur and traffic stacks up. Brief rest periods provide some relief, but are not always possible. Radar controllers usually work in semi-darkness.
Requirements and Experience
General Experience: Progressively responsible experience in administrative, technical or other work which demonstrates potential for learning and performing air traffic control work. A four year college degree can be substituted for the general experience requirement.
Specialized Experience: Experience in a military or civilian air traffic facility which demonstrated possession of the knowledge's, skills and abilities required to perform the level of work of the specialization for which application is made.
Educational and Other Substitutions for Experience: GS-7: Successful completion of four year college degree may be substituted in full for the experience required at GS-7. GS-7: Applicants who have passed the written test qualify for the experience requirements for grade 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 pilot certificate; 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 co-pilot or higher and hold or have held a private pilot certificate or equivalent Armed Forces rating; Have served as a rated Aerospace Defense Command Intercept Director; Meet the requirements for GS-5 and in addition pass the written test with a higher score.
Certificate and Rating Requirements: Air traffic control specialists in all specialization's are required to 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 aid to air navigation, and regulations governing air traffic. In addition, each air traffic control specialist must possess or obtain a rating for the facility to which assigned. This facility rating requires 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. All required certificates and ratings must be obtained, if not already held, within uniformly applicable time limits established by agency management.
Physical Requirements: Candidates must be able to pass a physical examination (including normal color vision). Air traffic control specialists are required to requalify in a physical examination given annually.
Written Test and Interview: Applicants must also pass a comprehensive written test and complete a personal interview during which alertness, decisiveness, diction, poise and conciseness of speech are evaluated. Both men and women are employed as air traffic controllers. Few occupations make more rigid physical and mental demands upon employees than that of air traffic controllers. Because studies show that the unique skills necessary for success as a controller diminish with age, a maximum age of 30 has been established, without exception, for entry into an FAA tower or center controller position.
Outlook for the Future
Although aviation is growing dramatically the number of new controllers hired each year is approximately 2,000. This is due to the fact that advances in automation have allowed fewer controllers do more work. There is however an increased emphasis on providing the maximum amount of safety which results in continued stringent requirements for controllers.
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $124,540 in May 2017.