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What Motivates an Air Traffic Controller?

Air traffic controlling is rumored to be one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. In many countries, the rewards are not encouraging. Remaining focus on the job is like walking a tightrope. But yet thousands of men and women signup for the job and stay committed to it for years. What is it that brings them to work each day?


What is it that motivate air traffic controllers to work each day? It’s a question that I’ve found myself asking pretty often, even more so that I’m pretty close to the end of my career as a practicing controller. The factors may be wide and varied, but I”ll jump right in and remove money as one them. I’ll probably work for free if I had an alternative means of supporting myself and family. While many controllers earn satisfactory wages, even more do not. Yet, they all have somethings is common: they all show for work, do a fantastic job, and then repeat the cycle on the next shift.

Here is a short list of some of the motivational factors I came up with:

Dynamic Environment

Like many professions, ATC operates in a dynamic environment. The separation standards, phraseology, navigation aids employed, and so on, remain the same, but the weather and the mixture of aircraft differ everyday. Throw in an emergency situation and the job gets even more exciting.

Wired in our DNA as humans, is adventure seeking, forever pushing back the boundaries of the unknown while the adrenaline is flowing. This probably explains why we show up for work. We never know what really lies ahead on any shift, but we are well prepared and anxious to handle it. The reality of what we do differ by the second and sometimes we just cant get enough of it. We would simply get bored if there is no excitement.

Sense of Accomplishment

Many days I’ve left the control tower feeling a sense of purpose, that my existence on Earth is justified. Safely navigating hundreds of aircraft and their occupants into and out of airports pretty much give you a “high”. Yes, ATC employs the use of some of the best tools that money can buy, but their is still the need for humans. The lives of countless passengers are literally in the hands of air traffic controllers everyday, and it’s more than a sense of accomplishment when you have contributed to their safe transit.

Instant Results

Whether instant or slightly delayed, air traffic controllers are obliged the opportunity to plan, issue instructions and see the results instantly. Unlike many professions where you have to wait to see the fruits of your labor, air traffic controllers get to see the their results instantly. The entire process of planning, issuing instructions and getting back results in a very small window of time is one of those driving factors in the lives of controllers. In essence, a controller’s job is a perpetual series of conflict resolutions which yields instant results.

Feeling of Belonging

Have you, as an air traffic controller, ever been asked by a stranger what you do for a living? Whatever direction the conversations was heading, the answer usually takes it on a different path. A combination or respect, admiration and a few more questions ensues. Humans crave belonging, and air traffic controllers are no different. They are motivated by the level of respect and admiration that is hurled at them by people who seem to put them in some kind of elite class. Announcing that you are an air traffic controller is definitely a game changer.

The Perks

I’m not sure how effective this factor is now, but I certainly enjoyed the days when controllers were obliged the privilege of riding in the cockpits. FREE or rebated airline tickets are usually enough keep air traffic controllers motivated in the land that I came from. September 11th certainly put a damper on that aspect of things, but there are still a few perks lying around that controllers enjoy.

Your Turn:

I’d love to hear what keep you going back to the tower, approach office or area control centre like if it’s your first day on the job.

6 Responses


hi, i was wondering if area controllers earn more than other types of controllers? Thanks a lot

Wayne Farley

In my experience, yes. But this may differ from place to place.


Hi, I’m on an ADI TWR course that ends in 4 weeks time,
I’ll need some of your advise but I need to write you an emial if possible but I can’t find a way to contact you through this blog?
Thanks a lot for this interesting blog btw

Wayne Farley

My email is aviation[at]waynefarley[dot]com. I’d be happy to offer any advice if I can.


Well, no doubts that a ATCO has ur advantages, and that was a excelent topic.
I guess the most amazing thing when someone ask what I do for living is say:
Yeah man, im Air Traffic Controler, i wanna be proud of myself someday.
With that accomplishment.


I don’t understand why Controllers aren’t given the privilege of FAM flights any more..
We trust you to guide plans going 400mph, but not sit in them… what?
Stupid IMO
Hopefully they come back.. I heard a rumor they were

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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. Read more.

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