Air Traffic Controller Stress

Airports · 6 min read · Aug 05, 2022
air traffic controller stress

Becoming an air traffic controller can be an interesting career path in the aviation industry for several reasons. On one side, it is a challenging yet rewarding career since the air traffic controller is in charge of guiding flights through the most appropriate flight paths in order to ensure their safety.

Also, the pay is not bad at all, with air traffic controllers averaging $138,556 in 2021 according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and salary-research company Salary Explorer estimates that German controllers earn about €102,534 in base salary.

On the other side, such responsibility can become a heavy burden even for the most skillful and trained air traffic controllers, and the main reason many believe it is one of the most stressful jobs around.

But, is it really such a stressful job? Are there other reasons to believe it is? We invite you to find out as we share the details about how air traffic controllers work.

Place of work: air traffic control facility

Most people believe that air traffic controllers work at the control towers of airports. However, this is often not the case.

While the name control tower suggests the facility is where the control of air traffic takes place, there is another facility where most controllers do their work. This is called the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and this facility is often located far from the actual airport the controllers are serving.

Another type of facility where ATC activities take place is the one called the route center. So, why three different types of facilities?

Well, the fact is that controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. This is how the whole ATC process goes: “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” said air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, in an interview with Art of Manliness.

Then “TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reaches an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.”

An air traffic controller at work in front of two screens and other tools.

Factors contributing to stressful ATC work conditions

There are plenty of conditions which make an air traffic controller’s work difficult. Unfortunately, stress sometimes starts building up from the very first days of training and it intensifies after entering the job market with irregular hours and a high level of responsibility.

How do air traffic controllers train?

Training is vital for air traffic controllers to perform well. While this is a profession that does not require any specific degree, it does require rigorous specific training and testing. Of course, these requirements may vary from one region to another, since some authorities will require more testing than others.

For example, Tobias Feuerhake, an air-traffic controller in Germany, said in an interview with Insider that everything starts with basic training. At this location, operating under EASA regulations, recruits go through the fundamentals of meteorology, aviation law, and aircraft navigation. The next step is practical training, and according to Feuerhake’s words, 80% of the time is spent on a simulator.

Feuerhake also said that they do not get a final examination, but they do get “training on the job” which consists of having the company of experienced air-traffic controllers for support and being continuously tested to guarantee the new air traffic controller is fit for the job.

In the United States, the process is a bit different, starting with the fact that there are two ways to start working in air traffic control, the Air Force or the FAA path.

In any case, the required training lasts several months, and aptitude, physical, physiological, and skill tests must be passed. These tests ensure that air traffic controllers have the health and skills required for air traffic control activities.

Also, the FAA requires some initial training with pass and fail kind of tests, and failing certain exams will eliminate applicants from the hiring process.

The job duties of an air traffic controller

Generally speaking, a flight control officer performs most “out-of-the-box” operations at airports. It is their responsibility to ensure the efficient operation of the entire process. Air traffic control personnel are present all the time, from takeout until landing. They monitor ground traffic and ensure no collisions are made and gates are cleared. They guide pilots from land to takeoff with weather alerts. Once the flight has departed the airspace under their jurisdiction, they transfer the flight accordingly.

An Air traffic controller tower at an airport.

Transfer to other controllers

The flight is monitored 24/7 with the assistance of the air traffic controller for maximum security. All the air traffic control systems have their own zones of operation and each aircraft entering and exiting their zones must comply with their guidelines and regulations. This also means air traffic control must know how to deliver the flight to the next zone.

The most common difficulties are found a moment after a flight leaves one area and requires direct contact with the next area. Here, the controller must provide flight info for the new area.

Instructions for takeoff and landing

Controllers must be very thorough with the information before an aircraft can depart their airport. One of the first things the pilot must know is whether or not there is bad weather nearby. Upon approval of the plane’s flight plan, the flight controller allows the aircraft’s departure.

The controllers also give the pilots guidance such as telling them what route to take for taxiing and what runway is open and ready for takeoff or landing. They guarantee there is clear ground at the runway, so no plane or vehicle gets in the way.

Multitasking

Controllers do a lot of multitasking. For example, they ensure that the weather is monitored at all times, check runways for clearances, and plan for landing maneuvers. All this at the same time they transmit a flight and receive the new flights from another area, and message pilots in order to notify the pilot of upcoming flights, among other things. It may take some effort to accomplish a task all at once. Clearly, this can generate a lot of job stress.

Long and irregular working hours

ATC works less than 8 hours per shift. However, these 8 hours usually feel longer because it is difficult to cope with all those tasks that require mental effort.

Consequently, certain flight control officers may have different shifts of action. They may have to work 2 hours and have 30 minutes of rest before resuming duties. And this usually includes working during day or night shifts as well as weekend shifts.

Radars and communication

Almost all the duties of controllers involve knowledge of radar and communications equipment and systems. They monitor the weather radar and recommend flights if the weather becomes stormy and dangerous.

The controller must also communicate directly with the pilot and other Air Traffic Control Facilities in case of emergency. Also, after a flight is withdrawn from the corresponding airspace, they must transfer it to the next zone.

Controlling ground traffic

Aircraft traffic control officers have an extremely important job: keeping runways organized. This ensures aircraft land where they are meant to or takeoff from the one which is already clear. It is important for the ATC to ensure the runway is open for any new planes that will be flying into the airport.

An ATC tower with an airplane approaching the runway in the distance.

What are the causes of stress for air traffic controllers?

So far, we have provided details on the training and the actual activities ATC officials carry out while on the job. Now is a good time to talk about the sources of stress that are associated with such activities.

According to Skybrary, there are the sources of stress for ATC can be related to two different groups of aspects, operational and organizational aspects. Let’s see each of them.

Sources of stress related to the operational aspects:

  • Peaks of traffic load
  • Time deficit
  • Operational procedures (often limited and need to be adapted)
  • Limitations and reliability of equipment
  • Abnormal/Emergency Situations

Sources of stress related to organizational aspects:

  • Shift schedules, especially night work
  • Management
  • Role conflicts
  • Unfavorable working conditions

Obviously, the lists above are not comprehensive, but they provide a better idea to understand how controllers are exposed to stress.

ATC FAQs

We are glad you have read until this point. Right now, you should have a clear idea about the relationship between ATC duties and stress. Anyway, we wanted to share some common questions before concluding this guide in case you had any. These are some of the most frequently asked questions around the topic of ATC and stress.

Is air traffic controller the most stressful job in the world?

Aviation controllers are the key to aviation safety. They are responsible for so many lives that it can be intimidating.
Also, this profession has been recognized as one of the most difficult for a long time and it requires total concentration. Therefore, it could be considered one of the most stressful jobs in the world, especially when serving the world’s busiest airport.

Are air traffic controllers happy?

CareerExplorer conducts an annual survey to find out if people are happy with their career paths. According to the survey, Air Traffic Controllers scored their career happiness with 3.3 stars out of five and are now in the top 42% of all careers.

What is the life expectancy of an air traffic controller?

Controllers must retire at the age of 56. Those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age of 50, while those with 25 years of service may retire earlier than that. Also, controllers are usually laid off sooner than the rest of the workforce since the skills required are proven to decrease with age.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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