12 secrets only air traffic controllers know

Airport tower workers rely on their eyes

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

Air traffic controllers 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.

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 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].”

They’re not on the ground waving their arms around

The people directing runway traffic are called “ground marshallers.” Air traffic controllers (ATCs) are different: 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.

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

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 post. Plus, less than 5 per cent 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. So, travellers are more likely to be stressed than ATCs. Try these tips to de-stress while travelling.

Six-figure salary, generous benefits

A typical air traffic control specialist earned on average $141,795 in 2017, according to Airservices Australia, the local governing authority. In April 2018, the Australian Taxation Office released taxation data across professions, which placed ATC among Australia’s top income earners.

ATCs need to take breaks

Although ATCs are on the job for six hours a shift, they get breaks within that time to avoid fatigue. Most workers take a 30 minute break over a six hour shift, according to the Airservices Australia enterprise agreement.

The application process is rigorous

The entire application process, from application to hiring, can take anywhere from months to years to complete, Vector tells And you need good timing: “About once a year, an application window opens on and generally remains open for a week or so,” he says. See if you’re ready by taking this test air traffic controllers used to have to pass.

Age does (and doesn’t matter)

While ATCs in the United States must be 30 or younger during the application window, in Australia applicants must simply be over 18 years of age. Similarly in the US, retirement is mandatory at age 56. This differs in each country. You also have to pass a criminal history background check and a medical exam that covers vision, colour vision, hearing, psychological health, substance abuse, cardiovascular fitness, and neurological well-being.

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:

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

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.

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 spot an unidentified flying object that didn’t appear on the radar. More recently, air traffic controllers in the American northwest coast state of Oregan, said they spotted an unregistered flying object moving at an unusually high speed last October 2018. So, we could be sharing the skies with UFOs?