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More Air Traffic Controllers are Needed to Keep Skies Safe

The skies are opening up to new air traffic controllers because of an aging North American workforce.

"The biggest trend affecting air traffic controllers is that of retirements," says controller Trevor Johnson.

"There is a huge need for air traffic controllers. And this need will continue for the foreseeable future."

Rob Thurgur is president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association. He says about 700 controllers are set to retire in Canada. Many can retire early with little or no penalty to their pension.

"In order to replace this many controllers, the requirement to hire and train this many new controllers will most likely continue for at least five to 10 years," says Thurgur. "The requirement for controllers is country-wide, although new controllers are not given a choice as to where they'd like to work."

The need is similar in the United States.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs the country's 14,000 air traffic controllers. It says thousands of controllers are eligible to retire. Many of them were part of a significant number hired in the 1980s to replace strikers who had been fired.

"We replaced three generations of controllers with one, creating a retirement bubble unlike anything the agency has had to deal with before," says Ruth Marlin. She is a past executive vice-president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"It is clear that in order to meet even current demand, we must hire today to replace the controllers projected to retire in the next few years."

Just what are the responsibilities of air traffic controllers?

When you're sitting on a 767 at the end of the runway waiting to take off, a controller decides when it's clear for the pilot to proceed. A controller monitors the entire progress of the flight, ensuring the safe flow of all air traffic -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It may sound simple. But the Government Accounting Office (GAO) says U.S. controllers are responsible for 200,000 aircraft a day. That's 700 million passengers each year.

Air traffic control specialists in the U.S. include terminal controllers and en route center controllers.

Terminal controllers are responsible for air traffic at airports. They control when pilots can taxi, take off and land.

En route center controllers are in charge of planes that are in the air between airports. They monitor flights and give pilots information on flight conditions.

"Today, there are as many flights as in 1981 and fewer controllers. We have maxed out the productivity that can be gained from new technology," says Marlin.

"The growth in air travel worldwide has also created demand for controllers, specifically in Canada and Europe," she adds.

Marlin notes that the FAA recognizes the need to increase controller hiring. But the issue is now in the hands of government to provide adequate funding.

There may be expanded opportunities for would-be controllers. But it's not easy to break into the field.

"The industry is at full capacity to fill the need. But the courses are very difficult and only 25 percent of those who start the training will become air traffic controllers," says Johnson.

"If you apply yourself and make it through the training, this is a great job and you can make a very good living. It would be best if you are a Type A personality if you want to excel at this job."

Marlin says training is "a highly specialized combination of academic qualifications, classroom training, simulation training and on-the-job instruction which last approximately three to five years."

The FAA only hires graduates of FAA-approved colleges or graduates of the air traffic control training program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. College graduates with aviation-related degrees then attend 12 weeks of controller training at the FAA Academy.

"Training is conducted in Oklahoma City at the FAA's training facility there. Once trained, the controllers are sent to their facilities for on-the-job training. This can take one to three years to reach full performance level," says flight service specialist John Dibble.

Graduates of the Minneapolis program immediately begin work at an assigned facility.

But don't expect to spend a lifetime in the tower. There are strict retirement regulations for U.S. controllers.

"Controllers become eligible for early retirement after 20 years of service if they are 50, or after 25 years at any age," says Dibble.

"Mandatory retirement age is 56. If you are 56 and don't yet have 20 years of service, you can work until you have 20 years, then you must retire."

Air traffic controllers earn a good living. But that isn't always enough to keep controllers on the job.

"Burnout is always an issue. The stressful nature of the job can force some controllers to seek other employment opportunities," says Thurgur. He says anyone contemplating a career as a controller should visit a tower and see what the work is like.

"They should also take time to clearly understand what type of work schedules they will be working and the working environment in which they will find themselves," he says.

But if you're interested in a high-flying career as a controller, the time is right.

"Do not wait. The maximum hiring age for an air traffic controller is 30. The screening process may take up to a year. And if you are interested in pursuing this career, time is of the essence," says Marlin.


Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- Air Traffic Control Specialist
The nature of the work and training involved in becoming a U.S. air traffic controller

National Air Traffic Controllers Association
This site has information on becoming an air traffic controller

Air Traffic Control Association
Get the latest industry news

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