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Air Traffic Controllers - What They Do

How to Advance (Advancement)
At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to the position of ground controller, local controller, departure controller, and, finally, arrival controller. At an air route traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate controller and then to radar controller.

Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions, including management or staff jobs—such as air traffic control data systems computer specialist—in air traffic control, and top administrative jobs in the FAA. However, there are only limited opportunities for a controller to switch from a position in an en route center to a tower.

Air traffic controllers held about 26,200 jobs in 2008. The vast majority were employed by the FAA, while a small number of civilian controllers also work for the U.S. Department of Defense. In addition to controllers employed by the Federal Government, some work for private air traffic control companies providing service to non-FAA towers and contract flight service stations.

Job Outlook
Air traffic controllers should experience about as fast as average employment growth, but most opportunities are expected to result from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation for other reasons. Keen competition is expected for air traffic controller positions.

Job Growth
Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to grow by 13 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Increasing air traffic will require more controllers to handle the additional work. Job growth, however, is not expected to keep pace with the increasing number of aircraft flying due to advances in technology.

The FAA is implementing an automated air traffic control system that will allow controllers to more efficiently deal with the demands of increased air traffic. It includes the replacement of aging equipment and the introduction of new systems, technologies, and procedures to enhance safety and security and support future aviation growth. Future developments will include the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to eliminate radar-based air traffic control and give controllers real-time displays of aircraft locations. This will allow for more efficient flight paths and reduced air traffic congestion, and it will also allow controllers to handle more traffic, increasing their productivity.

Most job opportunities are expected as the result of replacement needs from workers leaving the occupation. The majority of today's air traffic controllers will be eligible to retire over the next decade, although not all are expected to do so. Despite the increasing number of job openings for air traffic controllers, competition to get into the FAA Academy is expected to remain keen, as there generally are many more test applicants than there are openings.

Air traffic controllers who continue to meet the proficiency and medical requirements enjoy more job security than do most workers. While demand for air transportation declines during recessions, controllers are rarely laid off.

Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits. Median annual wages of air traffic controllers in May 2008 were $111,870. The middle 50 percent earned between $71,050 and $143,780. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $161,010. The average annual salary, excluding overtime earnings, for air traffic controllers in the Federal Government—which employs 90 percent of all controllers—was $109,218 in March 2009.

The Air Traffic Control pay system classifies each air traffic facility into one of eight levels with corresponding pay bands. Under this pay system, controllers' salaries are determined by the rating of the facility. Higher ratings usually mean higher controller salaries and greater demands on the controller's judgment, skill, and decision-making ability.

Depending on length of service, air traffic controllers receive 13 to 26 days of paid vacation and 13 days of paid sick leave each year, in addition to life insurance and health benefits. Controllers also can retire at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than other Federal employees. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service as an active air traffic controller or after 25 years of active service at any age. There is a mandatory retirement age of 56 for controllers who manage air traffic. However, Federal law provides for exemptions to the mandatory age of 56, up to age 61 in certain cases, but controllers must have exceptional skills and experience. Earnings and benefits for controllers working in contract towers or flight service stations may vary. Many air traffic controllers hold union membership, primarily with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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