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13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers are super humans. Well, almost. Akin to the stripes on a tiger, here are a handful of characteristics that air traffic controllers must possess in order to keep aircraft safe in the skies.




Air traffic controllers are super humans. Well, almost. How else are these professionals able to maintain safety and order in the increasingly busy skies above us? Sure enough, there are tools to help get the job done, but the human element is an important piece of the puzzle and cannot be ignored. Here are a handful of characteristics that air traffic controllers must possess [like the stripes on a tiger] in order to succeed at what they do:

  1. Spatial awareness – the ability to mentally build a three dimensional picture of where each aircraft is relative to the others and to foresee any potential conflicts is one of many characteristics an air traffic controller must possess.
  2. Simultaneous capacity – multitasking ranks in the top tier of characteristics that air traffic controllers must possess. Reading instruments, transmitting or receiving and writing simultaneously are just part of the routine of controllers on duty. [Can you rub your tummy and pat your head?]
  3. Excellent memory – the task of controlling aircraft requires air traffic controllers to remember both distant and recent events, even thought these may be aided by memory joggers. The multiplicity of air traffic control tasks competing for attention can easily interfere with one’s ability to remember. [Controllers are the elephants of the human race]
  4. Respect for authority and the rules – aviation is a highly regulated industry, which requires adherence to maintain safety. Regulations are the products of many years of industry experience and conventional wisdom and are undoubtedly superior to any single person’s judgment. Having respect for these will be a controller’s greatest asset. [I can almost hear someone saying “that” is a stupid rule]
  5. Making decisions under pressure – air traffic controllers must think faster than an aircraft can fly if they are to keep safety in the air. Decisions cannot be postponed when working live traffic traveling at speeds as much as 8 miles a minute. Every wasted minute brings conflicting aircraft dangerously close to one another.
  6. Exercising effective personal authority – the word “control” can only have meaning if air traffic controllers exercise their authority effectively. Being resolute earns a controller respect and gives pilots confidence in his/her ability. [This is not an excuse to exclaim “shut up”]
  7. Paying attention to details – “never assume, determine” is a phrase that air traffic controllers have repeatedly heard, and is synonymous with getting the details right. Like making quick decisions, the lack or wrong assumption of some detail can lead to dire consequences.
  8. Visual-motor coordination – try playing a video game without this ability… the result will be a resounding defeat. Controlling air traffic is like a complex video game, except that real lives and millions of dollars worth of aircraft are involved. Radar controllers and aerodrome controllers particularly must rely of visual-motor coordination for observing traffic and issuing instructions accordingly.
  9. Teamwork skills – a chain is as strong as its weakest link. That said, air traffic controllers must work together like the proverbial chain to maintain the safe and orderly flow of traffic. One blunder in the order can replicate itself throughout the chain. The defense mechanism in place, however, is often sufficient to stymie the development of any problems.
  10. Tolerance to frustration – this is easier said than done, but controllers cannot allow extraneous issues to interfere with their performance. When a controller enters an ATC unit, he must check all annoyances at the door if he is to carry out the exacting tasks ahead on his watch.
  11. Emotional stability – emotions almost always clouds one’s judgment, and air traffic controllers must keep these at bay. Like frustrations, emotions must be checked at the door.
  12. Willingness to accept criticism – an observer on the outside looking in is likely to be at an advantage, and criticism of from him/her should be accepted. It is likely that controllers can achieve the same objective using different methods, so it is wise to accept other points of view. [hmmm…controllers are gods unto themselves]
  13. Resistance to boredom – boredom leads to complacency. [no more explanation needed here]

The list of characteristics is by no means exhaustive, so tell me what are some other characteristics that an air traffic controller must possess.

13 characteristics of an air traffic controller

 


30 Responses

09.07.10

Interesting read. Two additions. Perserverance is also a quality required as some evenings with the TSTMs, deviations, frequency congestion etc. its a required trait. Imagine a controller throwing up their hands and simply going home.

Also not only a long memory but a short memory as well. The ability to erase or not remember events can also be an attribute especially when overcoming critical incident stree inducing events.

09.07.10

Thanks for the comments Marlin. Perseverance is key. As a recruiter, I always look for this characteristic in potential air traffic controllers. People who play chess or are interested in gardening are usually good candidates. These kinds of activities requires perseverance.

09.07.10

Awesome post Wayne! I love your niche man! Yea i totally agree with all your points. Thanks for sharing and keep the good work up. Tc

09.07.10

Thanks for the compliment Samuel. With this much experience, I believe I can best serve the world in this niche.

09.07.10

The first rules were brief and basic. For example, pilots were told not to begin their takeoff until there is no risk of collision with landing aircraft and until preceding aircraft are clear of the field. As traffic increased, some airport operators realized that such general rules were not enough to prevent collisions. They began to provide a form of air traffic control (ATC) based on visual signals.

09.07.10

Thanks for providing that insight Sabrina. Oh, what a far way we’ve come.

09.07.10

Keep up the good work Wayne!

09.07.10

Not bad, not bad at all! What is missing, however, is how the job effects you and your family OFF the job. Controllers expect people to understand them first time, not question what they say. Controllers have to believe they are correct when they give instructions, and this happens 24-7, not just at work. Although you speak of both short term and long term memory, the job really is ALL short term memory, anywhere from 1-20 minutes. Beyond that, you are flushing the older data out or your personal RAM to make room for more airplane call signs and info.
Just as there are lots of Murphy’s law correlaries specific to the job, there are socialogical impacts to the career controller. Spouses and kids and acquaintances DO NOT respond the same way as our workmates-and are offended by our “need”. Our loved ones do not appreciate the “I know I’m right” behavior that enables us to do the job and get appropriate response actions form pilots and coworkers. Spouses, in particular, do not like that the thing they thought was important last night, when you “talked” to each other, gets flushed out of the RAM, and you the controller firmly believes it was never even discussed!
These actually end up as at least equal stressors as the ones we perform every day at work. It takes great effort to overcome, and contributes to controllers having divorce rates equal to the elevated ones of Police and Fire service personnel. It takes intensive effort to remember that the world is not our workplace, and it is very difficult to translate from a “control freak”(all pun intended) at work, to a fully connected partner at home. Just speaking from experience…..In fact, the best controller marriages, it seems, are when BOTH spouses are controllers and think alike intrinsically-although I have to wonder how their kids deal with it!
All said, you BECOME THE JOB, and that is not a bad thing; it is what makes you capable of doing the job long term.

Best regards,
Jon
28 years/no controller errors or deviations…….

09.07.10

Thanks Jonathan for your perspective. I shall certainly write on the effects of ATCOs job on family and social life. This would be interesting.

09.07.10

Thanks Wayne for this list. A friend of mine came up immediately with one other point. High tolerance to caffeine. Maybe not very serious. Good work! I posted it on my facebook account where quite a few of my co-workers can read that.

09.07.10

Thanks Andy. I believe your friend is right. I’ve seen controllers putting down some coffee like if it’s water.

09.07.10

Wayne, your analysis of “the Air Traffic Controller” is great. J.Swingle made some catchy observations and I am really taken by those points. Basically I have had to grapple with most of these problems dealing with my colleagues and their own personal issues. I am happy some one identified that we are a specie that best understand each other and can withstand the storm when we are together. I am lucky to have a wife who is also a controller! Bum!! My kids? Boy they are doing their best to understand US! Their mother and I. But trully, Wayne your work is great, please keep us informed and updated all the time.

09.07.10

Thanks you Ahmad for your comments. I’m just airing my experiences, and soliciting the views of others. Only we understand ourselves, and together we can inform the world. Maybe the peoples of the world will want to be like us.

09.07.10

Not Quite! Air traffic controllers are certainly fine fellas, but ultimate safety of the aircraft is squarely on the shoulders of the pilot flying the aircraft!

After all, he doesn’t visualize 3 dimensions, he flies his aircraft in 3 dimensions!

09.07.10

Thanks for your comments. I am not disagreeing with you, but overall safety in the air is the responsibility of the air traffic controller.

09.07.10

This post really makes you think just how unappreciated they are. Can you imagine what they must have gone through on 9/11? A friend of mine has had to be redirected many times for this or that, (he flys for a private company). If they were not able to handle this, many people would be in trouble. The amount of airplanes in the air at any given time is too big to even think about.

09.07.10

Together with the other controllers that commented, we are happy to provide an insight into the life and characteristics of air traffic controllers.

09.07.10

You worry me a little Wayne. The last time I heard of any group described as Super Human based on genetics was back in the late 30’s… Putting the Aryan into ATC?!?

09.07.10

That was an attempt to be funny. We are regular human beings with unique characteristics.

09.07.10

I would suggest that instead of making genetic based claims about the workers you instead stick to talking about the nature of the work. I would seriously doubt that generalizing about ATCO’s is accurate, whereas generalizing about the tasks required of us may be much more so. It also doesn’t pander to the “us and them” mindset so plaguing the profession (not all, but many). It also alienates new recruits who think they have to be superhuman to do this work. The sign of a secure profession may well be it’s ability to laugh at itself, but I struggled to find any punchlines there Wayne!! I don’t mean to come across as unreasonably critical, but there are elements within our profession who are unreasonably arrogant and think themselves a select breed. I reject this notion and think it behooves us to make it clear that ATC is a set of skills many/most people can develop should they wish to – but as with any skillset, perseverance and persistence are foremost.

09.07.10

Thanks for extending the subject Jeb. Max Bezzina wrote a follow up article here http://bezzina.cc/atmtrg/?p=384 and he acknowledges the fact that “Reading about the characteristics, made me think that in the end air traffic control is not as exclusive as some might want to portray it…….if training [and consequently selection tests] could be redesigned with a more pedagogical approach to learner’s needs, more young people could become controllers.” I wholeheartedly agree with him, and can remember sometime in the past trying to convince my superiors of this same concept. That said, my aim was never link our work to genetics or alienate new recruits.

09.07.10

Thanks for the heads up on Max’s blog – he’s done a terrific job of expounding on this issue. His earlier post (four years ago) captures my biggest concern… I believe the elitist elements of the profession have taken over the asylum, and so a lot of our training efforts have been hamstrung by outdated, bloated, and badly designed curriculum, delivered by people with rice paper thin pedagogical skills. I’ve recently sat in on a variety of sessions with new recruits and I have to say that I was shocked at how dull, tedious, and bureaucratic they make this amazing job to seem. We need to seriously rethink the superhuman culture that, in my opinion, is making it so difficult for us to take promising young people and skill them up to a high standard. Jeb.

09.07.10

Jeb Lundstock
I would suggest that instead of making genetic based claims about the workers you instead stick to talking about the nature of the work. I would seriously doubt that generalizing about ATCO’s is accurate, whereas generalizing about the tasks required of us may be much more so. It also doesn’t pander to the “us and them” mindset so plaguing the profession (not all, but many). It also alienates new recruits who think they have to be superhuman to do this work. The sign of a secure profession may well be it’s ability to laugh at itself, but I struggled to find any punchlines there Wayne!! I don’t mean to come across as unreasonably critical, but there are elements within our profession who are unreasonably arrogant and think themselves a select breed. I reject this notion and think it behooves us to make it clear that ATC is a set of skills many/most people can develop should they wish to – but as with any skillset, perseverance and persistence are foremost.

You mean ATC’s AREN’T super human?? Well, that’s it then! I refuse to become an ATC. I plan on handing my cape back into the office. I say good day to you sir…

😀

09.07.10

Wayne,

I love the list. I do believe that ATCs are very special people, and I thank you for your ability to do your job. Without you ladies and gentlemen, there would be so many crashes. You keep wearing your tiger stripes proudly.

09.07.10

I agree with u

09.07.10

Just a thought:

One of my ATC instructor once said that he believes anyone could do that job so long they’re willing and persevere. To have some born attributes definitely helps in regards to the amount of efforts one has to put into his training but during one’s training, one learns and builds up skills unto attributes. It’s like RTF phraseology, it becomes second nature, how many times have I found myself say “correction” when speaking in public or in any type of conversation instead of the old “CxxP!!” word or “sorry”, even now I find myself say “I say again” or I ask people “Say again?” when I don’t understand what they mean! I also was not that of a confident person but this job specially during the training builds you into a confident person, not because of a big ego but because we are to learn aviation laws and procedures… verbatim and this makes you be confident in what you say and do. Further more, the “never assume, determine” also you learn it throughout your trainig and it also reflects up in your personal life making one to always check that info received are correct, hence less prone to controversies…
Moreover My instructor said those ATCOs that believe they have got it all and know everything or can handle everything need to go back to training because there just needs to come an unusual circumstance or emergency situation that they are not used to deal with and all that arrogance is out of the blue, it humbles you down.

Well personaly , what I like with this job is the ever learning part of it, everyday there is something new to learn, everyday is a challenge 😉 keep you on your toes 🙂

Great blog btw Wayne 😉

09.07.10

Everything that you said is true. I can relate to it all.

09.07.10

I am at a young age and am graduating high school in 2012 with plans on becoming a Air Traffic Controller. Any suggestions on how to start? Or scholarship that are given? My GPA is a 3.7 and I scored a 1800 on my SAT does that count for something in this field of Aviation?

09.07.10

13 very nice things to have, but in the 22 1/2 years I have been in the FAA, this job has demonstrated a steadily increased level of behavior modification in the people it employs. Modernization and related changes in the system have increased boredom and complacency. Rule changes have decreased the need for controllers to know “everything about everything” in the NAS and require only a basic knowledge about their particular working enviornment (Tower, TRACON, TMU, etc.). Meets FAA standards should be viewed as an insult. Not that every controller knows everything, just ask them! (There is your “humor”) Which leads me to the one characteristic that is only used during the training period and even then sparingly, number 12. Just one very jaded and tired controllers opinion, but it is correct, just ask me!

09.07.10

Thanks for the comments Troy. Come to think of it, it’s true about number 12. Egos can grow and get in the way, so accepting criticism must be a rare characteristic.

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About Wayne Farley

Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, an aviation safety evangelist who once made my living working in the control tower. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from the aviation world. After writing "13 Characteristics of an air traffic controller" in 2010, it went viral and established me as an unofficial ambassador for ATC.

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