A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

13 Secrets Only Air Traffic Controllers Know

Without air traffic controllers, airline pilots would be flying blind; here's what else only an air traffic controller knows.

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Aerial view of airport. Airplane taxiing to runway before take off.
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They’re not the guys on the ground waving their arms around

The people directing runway traffic are called “aircraft marshallers.” Air traffic controllers (ATCs) are different: According to the Federal Aviation Authority, ATCs are responsible for “the safe, orderly, and expeditious movement of air traffic through the nation’s airspace.” For example, ATCs ensure that aircraft remain at safe distances from one another. They also guide pilots away from bad weather. Essentially, air traffic controllers tell pilots where and when to fly, reports airline KLM. Didn’t know that? Here are 13 surprising things your airline knows about you.

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transport class helicopter flight instrument with red heading flag or an aircraft instrument dashboard screen with a red heading fail flag. Glass cockpit flight instrumentation of Thales Topdeck.

Not all air traffic controllers work at the airport

“While air traffic control towers are certainly the most visible part of our workplaces, tower controllers are only responsible for the airport surfaces and the airspace immediately surrounding the airport,” air traffic controller “Vic Vector” explains on thepointsguy.com. The air traffic in the airspace around major airports is controlled by ATCs who work in “dark, windowless rooms, sometimes hundreds of miles away from the airspace they’re watching [via radar].”

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Airport control tower at Sofia's airport in a foggy weather.

Airport tower workers rely on their eyes

ATCs who work in airport towers spend as much time looking out their windows as they do at the radar screen. “In short, we sit staring out of the window a lot,” Dutch air traffic controllers Feike and Carlijn explains on the KLM Airlines blog. “In fact, we can handle more traffic if we can see it directly than if we have to rely on technology.” In bad weather, ATCs can’t see as well, which is why those days can mean delays for passengers. That’s just one of the things airlines aren’t telling you.

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Airplane with four engines landing on runway back view - touchdown with tire smoke
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The job is shockingly unpredictable

For a job that relies on absolute precision, air traffic controllers can’t predict what a shift will be like. “No day is like any other, and they never know what they might face when they arrive at work to start their shift.” retired ATC Keith Brown explains on quora.com.

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Flight control equipment in the traffic control tower at an airport
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The stress isn’t as bad as you’d think

Although being an ATC ranks among the most stressful jobs, the people who actually do it for a living don’t seem to mind. “The fact that many lives could be at risk if a mistake is made was a positive stressor for me,” Brown explains on another quora.com post. Plus, less than 5 percent of the job feels high-stress, adds former air traffic controller Jeff Jarr in a separate post. If the work stresses you out, he says, you won’t last long.

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Stack of one hundred dollar bills close-up. (shallow DOF)
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Six-figure salary, generous benefits

A typical air traffic control specialist earned $127,805 in 2016, according to the FAA. But that’s not it for the bonuses: “As a federal employee, air traffic control specialists receive a benefits package that rivals, if not surpasses, those offered in the private sector, with a variety of insurance, retirement, leave and flexible spending options for employees and their families,” according to the FAA. For more insider information on what’s happening when you fly, find out 22 things a flight attendant won’t tell you.

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due date calendar with alarm clock on office desk and blur business woman working in background

ATCs need to take breaks

Although ATCs are on the job for eight to nine hours a day, they get breaks within that time to avoid fatigue. Most workers take a break every 75 to 90 minutes, usually for 20 to 39 minutes at a time, according to a study NASA conducted for the FAA.

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Legs of diverse job applicants sitting on office chairs in corridor waiting in turn for interview, feet of work candidates expect in queue for hiring or employment talk. Recruitment concept

The application process is rigorous

The entire application process, from application to hiring, can take anywhere from months to years to complete, Vector tells thepointsguy.com. And you need good timing: “About once a year, an application window opens on usajobs.gov and generally remains open for a week or so,” he says.

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Detailed close up photo. Female hands holding the optical device for eye testing.

Age matters

To get a job as an ATC in the United States, you must be 30 or younger during the application window. Retirement is mandatory at age 56. You also have to pass a criminal history background check and a medical exam that covers vision, color vision, hearing, psychological health, substance abuse, cardiovascular fitness, and neurological well-being.

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Picture of black glasses on a white book
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They speak their own language

“In our world, we speak a unique language called radiotelephony (RT),” note Carlijn and Feike. “This is based on English and there is a lot of jargon involved.” RT means all pilots and ATCs speak the same language, but even if English is your native tongue, you’ll need time to become fluent in RT.

Here are some RT words and their definitions:

  • Squawk: Set the mode or code of transmission.
  • Wilco: I understand your message and will comply with it.
  • Words twice: Communication is difficult, so please send every word or phrase twice. To further understand their language, here’s what some other mysterious flight codes really mean.
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Swear jar to prevent swearing, filled with money
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Swearing is off limits

While most high-stress jobs seem to involve a lot of cursing—think of financial traders or commercial fisherman, for example—but swearing is “absolutely” not permitted from ATCs (or pilots), aviator Doug Hanchard explains on quora.com.

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Passenger plane in the airport . Aircraft maintenance.

Don’t blame ATCs for delays

How many times have you sat on an airplane and heard the pilot attribute a delay to something going on with air traffic control? There are many possible reasons for a delay, including some issue with the aircraft. But ATCs—and pilots—know that most delays are not the fault of air traffic controllers, Heathrow Airport ATC manager Pete Glass tells The Sun.

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An unidentified flying object passing the Andromeda galaxy
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ATCs will sometimes see UFOs

While pilots seem to be more likely to spot UFOs, ATCs definitely see their fair share. For instance, one night in March 2004, a few air traffic controllers in a Canada airport claimed to pot an unidentified flying object that didn’t appear on the radar. More recently, Oregon air traffic controllers said they spotted an unregistered flying object moving at an unusually high speed in October 2018. Now that you know all about air traffic controllers, these are 40 things your pilot won’t tell you.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.