• 06 April 2020
7 Skills that Make Air Traffic Controllers Exceptional

When we think about air travel, many tend to think of pilots as the heroes of the sky. Air traffic controllers are the heroes on the ground that keep those pilots and their passengers safe. It’s not an easy job, and it takes exceptional individuals to keep all of us safe in the sky. Air traffic controllers are exceptional in a lot of ways — here we’ll highlight seven of the areas they are most skilled in!

1. They have three-dimensional situational awareness

Air traffic controllers have to create a mental picture of where each aircraft is in the sky to avoid any potential danger. Every day the U.S. has 26,000 scheduled passenger flights, carrying over 2.5 million people. At any time of day, 5,000 aircraft can be in the sky.[i] Consider the responsibility and mental acuity it takes for the more than 14,000 dedicated air traffic controllers to coordinate and direct that fair amount of air traffic.[ii]

2. They’re great multitaskers

Air traffic controllers simultaneously read instruments, transmit or receive vital information, communicate with pilots and ground personnel, and more to achieve air safety for commercial, military, and private aircraft.

Many airports need equipment upgrades, but air traffic controllers work with what they have until Congress makes up its mind about funding. Commercial airliners now carry 26 percent more passengers than they did just a decade ago and flew over 1 trillion passenger miles for the first time in 2018.[iii] On top of all this, there are plenty of other crafts in the skies, such as drones, that have to be accounted for.

3. They meet exceptionally high standards of performance

Air traffic controllers must function in a highly regulated environment to maintain safety. The job requires the ability to maintain a tremendous level of attention to detail. With an increase of drone usage by tech giants like Amazon and logistic providers such as UPS and FedEx, even more regulations will be required as the industry adapts to emerging new technologies.

4. They can work under a lot of pressure

Air traffic controllers often have to make split-second decisions and operate under the weight of knowing that one misjudgment can result in lost lives. Every second counts when it comes to making judgments while knowing that you are holding the lives of thousands of people in your hands.

The job requires precision in the face of an unpredictable environment, from language barriers with foreign pilots to extreme weather conditions. Each year air traffic controllers are responsible for helping one billion passengers reach their homes, vacations, or business safely, and they make sure more than 44 billion pounds of air freight arrives at its destination.[iv]

5. Visual problem solving

If you have ever felt challenged by the skill it takes to play video games, imaging playing an intense game for hours at a time. Except this “game” has genuine human consequences far beyond a high or low score.

That is one of many reasons why the application process is rigorous, and applicants must be 30 years or younger. At age 56, retirement is mandatory. In addition to passing a criminal background check, fitness test, and psychological tests, applicants must pass vision, color vision, and neurological exams.

6. They embrace teamwork

When you consider the number of aircraft in the sky at one time, multiple airports, and the effort of numerous air traffic controllers, ground staff, and pilots, teamwork is critical. Like a line of dominoes, one mistake can cause the whole line to fail.

7. The ability to keep things separate

When air traffic controllers sit down in their chairs, they have to set aside emotional distractions, whether it is a fight with a spouse or annoyance with a coworker. Working on holidays and weekends, missing family occasions, and unusual sleep schedules can be wearing. Keeping their emotions in check and duty in mind is how they exert control.

Next time you’re using air travel, consider just how much is actually going on behind the scenes to get your flight to its destination safely and promptly. And don’t worry, we’ll thank an air traffic controller for you.



Article authored by and containing the opinions of Starr Wright USA; this article is offered solely for informational purposes.

Starr Wright USA is a marketing name for Starr Wright Insurance Agency, Inc. and its affiliate(s). Starr Wright USA is an insurance agency specializing in insurance solutions for federal employees and federal contractors. For more information, visit WrightUSA.com. Starr Wright USA is a division of Starr Insurance Companies, which is a marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.
[i] Make our skies safer and less crowded
[ii] Presidential Message on National Air Traffic Control Day, 2019
[iii] The Dangers of Delaying FAA Modernization
[iv] Make our skies safer and less crowded
The Dangers of Delaying FAA Modernization
8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers
13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller