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What are some potential difficulties in becoming an air traffic controller?

I feel that ATC would be a perfect career for me, but I don't think that I completely understand the hardships, and difficulties that come along with the job. #aviation #air-traffic-control

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Christopher’s Answer


I have been in the Air Traffic Control field for more than about 40 years having worked in a Control Tower, a radar approach control-referred to as a TRACON- and a Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). I have worked as a controller, trainer,mstaff specialist, supervisor and manager in the career field. I began my career in the military as a controller. Other avenues into the career field include select colleges that provide Air Traffic Training Programs and occasionally, the government hires people with generalized experience only. All the information that Kim states about the associated shift work are accurate. There are multiple phases of training, some difficult. To learn more, follow the steps I have outlined below. It is a great job, but it is not for everyone.

Christopher recommends the following next steps:

Good Luck!
Research the internet about all things Air Traffic Control. Start with faa.gov
Attempt to visit an Air Traffic Control facility or facilities. I know that there are several towers in Hawaii but you may have to go to Honolulu to see a TRACON and an ARTCC. Call the facility directly and tell them you are interested in a tour and ask lots of questions.

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Kim’s Answer


Hi! I was a police officer at an airport, not an ATC person, but can provide a little information. The thing that immediately came to mind is that there are many medications you cannot take if you are an air traffic controller. This might not sound like a problem if you are young and healthy, but that all starts to change as you get older. I think even allergy meds are not allowed, as they can make a person drowsy. Medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes also might cause problems. For more info on this, Google Air Traffic Controller Medicine List.

ATC is shift-work. Having done shift work for 25 years, it has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, shifts often start at non-traditional hours, so vehicle traffic is lighter. (not dealing with rush-hour was great!)Having days off during the week is cool, so you can keep appointments without having to take off, go shopping when it is not busy, go camping when the parks are empty. The minus side is the majority of the rest of the world is not working shift work. You might miss your kids' school functions, have to work holidays and weekends, etc. If you are on an afternoon shift, say, 4-midnight, and your kids are in school, you will never see them except on your days off and when you get them up for school in the morning. It may be hard to hang out with your friends, and you might start feeling alienated from friends and family. I do not know how shift assignments are made.

The job is stressful. There is no room for error. It's like being a traffic cop in the sky. But you can't tell an aircraft (other than a helicopter) to just sit right there a minute while you figure it all out. Mistakes are costly, even if it does not result in loss of human life. If you tell a plane to circle around and approach again for a landing, the cost of the fuel used is not cheap. You will need to learn many things, such as weather and different types of aircraft, and a whole lot of regulations. You will learn techniques for successfully managing multiple aircraft.

If there is "an incident," recordings are played back, and your actions will be scrutinized. You may feel like your own mgt. has turned against you. It's like a cop who gets investigated if involved in an officer-involved shooting. It can be a lonely feeling, and a scary time. I would imagine that most of these situations resolve in favor of the ATC person, but don't know for sure.

All that being said, air transportation is exciting! I enjoyed working at the airport, and talking on the radio with the tower people. If it is something you really want to do, please realize you will be very well trained to do the job expected of you. Confidence in your training will help you to stay calm under pressure. And I believe there is almost always a supervisor on-duty.

I wish you the best of luck!