Debunking the Myth of the Air Traffic Controller by Frank Frisbie

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Frank L. Frisbie, P.E.  – Double F Consulting LLC

There is an almost universal public perception that an air traffic controller’s job is one of continuous “high pressure” and that those individuals are routinely engaged in “life saving” activities. I believe that this is a misperception – a myth – that does not serve well those in the profession or the numerous stakeholders who use and rely on air traffic control for transportation or commerce.

A first step in understanding the “job” of an air traffic controller is to recognize that this single label in the U.S. is worn by about 15,000 individuals working in a variety of job descriptions in some 315 federally operated facilities [there are also military controllers and even some employed by private sector companies].  Without regard to those “controllers” whose jobs are managerial or administrative, the folks we’re talking about are the first line controllers – the “real” controllers.

There are controllers whose duty station is in the control tower cab at the airport where they oversee the airport surface and guide the movement of airplanes to/from the runway; other controllers are located in an approach control facility whose concern is for aircraft at lower altitude while departing or arriving at an airport; still others work in enroute centers where they oversee flights at higher altitudes as they travel between origin and destination; some work in the strategic oversight of the system at a command center; and, finally, there are those whose primary function is to service the private pilots/aircraft that generally fly in good weather and at lower altitudes.

Let me start by reinforcing the myth to some extent. You need to picture the controller whose routine most approximates the mythical person who holds your life in her/his hands as you traverse the skies. That controller is epitomized in my mind by the approach controller in a busy facility such as the TRACON that services flights into JFK International in New York.  This individual, operating in a semi darkened room, is hunched over a large radar scope and is talking to aircraft [pilots] virtually non-stop.

“Blips” swarm across the radar scope appearing, transiting and disappearing in a seemingly endless stream.  Is this person busy? Indeed, this is a very busy person. To watch this person work is to see an artist as he/she deftly choreographs the aircraft into a stream of equally spaced “targets” that move toward and onto the runway.  

An aspect of the controller’s job that should not be overlooked or underestimated is the “buzz” or “high” the individual gets from doing the job under high activity conditions. Talk to them and it will be described differently but the common thread is that they are very self satisfied at having done something special. Watch them and you see that there is a kind of grace to the way they manage their assigned airspace as their own cadence and movements with keyboard and track ball adjusts with the movements of the traffic. There is a real skill here I don’t wish to diminish or demean.

The most able controllers are maestros conducting the airplanes across their radar scopes and achieving efficiencies not possible except for their skillfulness. The least able – usually assigned to less complex or less busy sectors – are more akin to “herders” who push their assigned aircraft along with little flair needed or employed. Under all there is generally a pride – mostly deserved – that what they do is worthwhile and that they are members of a special fraternity that “outsiders” cannot fully comprehend or appreciate. That belief is not unique, I think the same can be said for firefighters, policemen, pilots, Emergency Medical Technicians and many other occupations who, inexplicably, often fare far worse than controllers in the media and at the pay window.

Speaking of pay, being a controller in the U.S. makes checking your pay stub a chore because your total compensation is the aggregate of : basic salary + locality pay + overtime + premium pay [ Sunday & holidays] + night differential [ 6 PM to 6 AM] + operational differential. FAA said that in 2005 the average controller would receive $165,000 in salary, premium pay and benefits and 10% of that workforce would receive over $200,000.  This does not even account for the “fringe benefits” of annual and sick leave, health benefits, employer match to retirement fund, etc.

But let me not forget to cite the negative attributes of a controller’s job:

  • Speak only when spoken to [by a pilot] and use only these specific words [lexicon] when you do
  • You can only work for me – FAA or the ANSP
  • You must pass an annual physical exam and be subject to drug testing
  • You are only really “working” when you are plugged in at your work station [tethered to a console]
  • You can’t take work home or come in on your day off to catch up
  • You work only about ½ of your assigned shift but have to stay at the work site the full time
  • Your work period changes every 6 weeks and rotates thru the day/evening/night shifts
  • You must play by a rigid set of rules and dare not innovate or deviate
  • There is no practical advancement beyond FPL/CPC so you, and all like you, share the same pay plateau for years on end
  • You pay Union dues but Federal Law constricts the ways and means the Union can deal with management
  • You retire in 20 years or at age 56 whether you want to or not

My conclusion is that a controller has an indoor job, in a climate controlled facility, for which he/she is paid well for 8 hours work in a day where they are only productive for 4 or 5 hours. The person operates in a mode that can be described as “rote” in that they are in a rut – same place, same seat, same traffic, same responses every day – day after day. The inevitable conclusion is that the person has frustration, stagnation, unhappiness- not borne of tension – but from being in a dead end, boring job.  So I say that to the extent they are troubled it is not because they are in a high stress situation hour after hour or day after day. Quite the contrary, these people are unhappy because they are stifled. They have, with or without cause, decided they don’t like their job or their employer but they are stuck with FAA. They and their families tend to tire quickly of shift work because, although it has some advantages, it is generally viewed as an impediment to personal and family life.  And in the end they are just too well paid to leave. Their situation might be a classic case of “golden handcuffs”.

We should not, therefore, be surprised that we have a repeat of the 1981 scenario where there are 11,000 controllers, represented by a strong union, generally unhappy with their employer, their jobs and their lives and who have nowhere else to go. Add to this the fact that the Congress under new leadership is likely to be more sympathetic to this influential labor group and you have the all makings for mischief.

It is also helpful and topical to look at the training regimen now prescribed by FAA whereby an individual can progress from a healthy, intelligent outsider to a Certified Professional Controller (CPC) – an air traffic controller certified to handle live traffic (i.e. separate aircraft) in a specific volume of airspace – an Area. The process begins with a relatively new 6 ½ hour AT-SAT, Air Traffic Selection and Training, exam that is forecast to screen candidates down to those very likely to complete training successfully. Most controller candidates then undergo 12 weeks of classroom training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK and then a long period – around 3 years – of on-the-job (OJT) training at an FAA facility. The training culminates with the individual being “checked out” or certified by a journeyman controller at the specific positions or sectors of the ARTCC or TRACON area where he/she will work.  From my perspective the aforementioned process represents a progression from an objective test to something akin to a fraternity initiation. The latter being subjective to the point of being almost frivolous.

The span of ~ 3 years of on the job training is, to me, a strange collection of activities – albeit one that has successfully produced good controllers for many years – that is not rooted in predictable, repeatable, objective criteria. It rests heavily on the candidates memorization of hundreds of facts that are specific to her/his final job assignment [a process that has to be repeated if/when the controller moves to a different Area, sector or facility] and on her/his ability to convince their peers, who must give a thumbs up, that they will “play nice with others” when they are elevated to Full Performance Level  (FPL) or, more correctly, a Certified Professional Controller (CPC) in the current vernacular.  There are, to be sure, valid reasons for the long duration between arrival at a work site and full checkout, among them is the irony that FAA hasn’t enough “spare” controllers help candidates with OJT. The result is that the aspiring controller must often pass the time in menial tasks while she/he awaits an instructor for OJT who may well be someone working overtime or coming in on their [paid] day off to do the OJT function.

And, if that were not enough, we have the attrition situation which looms over the entire landscape. Because of the “controller strike” in 1981 where FAA “fired” thousands of controllers for an illegal job action, almost all of the controllers presently employed date their service from the early 1980s.  And because “time flies” they are approaching retirement age en masse. The result is that all forecasts predict that FAA will need to have an aggressive hiring [and training] initiative to cope with the inevitable attrition. Nevertheless, I don’t think the answer lies in increasing controller compensation or in hiring new controllers that are clones of those who went before. I am among those who see this situation as a window of opportunity in which FAA can change at least some of the factors that have gone into the construct of today’s controller job and that have created such an unstable workforce.

FAA is, of course, well aware of the entire situation and is pursing a “Plan for the Future” that embodies a 10-year strategy for the Air Traffic Controller Workforce.  This document is difficult reading for me because it reflects so many of the constraining factors that unreasonably limit FAA management in aggressively coping with the issues around controller staffing.  The (un)availability of funding is obviously a major impediment to progress.  The fact that the workforce is represented by a very active labor union is another factor that seems to inhibit FAA creativity in these matters.  The result is a plan that nips at the edges of the problem while leaving the main corpus intact so that the end result – if everything works – will be a lot like the status quo ante barring some very enlightened thinking and corporate courage.

Some of the enlightened thinking might emanate from the FAA training initiative known as ATCOTS, for Air Traffic Controller Optimum Training Solution.  If FAA allows, this program can use private sector ingenuity and investment to craft a dramatically better training scheme that will reduce FAA costs and dramatically reduce the time to CPC.  To my thinking, the solution logically begins with FAA expanding the current Training Support for Air Traffic (TSAT) contract, held by Washington Consulting Group (WCG), beyond its present limit so the contractor could hire [more] retired controllers empowered to perform OJT functions on the control room floor and not just do simulator training and class room instruction. The aforementioned action may raise liability issues but they can certainly be dealt with. I think this action has the potential to reduce FAA costs, both from reduced overtime and from non productive trainee time, and can accelerate student progress to the journeyman level. It would also allow working controllers to get their full entitlement of annual leave and other time off. Further, as I will explain below, I think this approach is complementary to the role of the proposed training contract.

In my ideal solution I would also seek to disabuse the new recruits of the myth I have already articulated and, at the same time begin to create the new job in ways that avoid the mechanical repetitiveness of so many of the current “2152” jobs.  There is real potential for a win/win/win here so that the controller candidate gets fully rated more quickly; at lower cost to the government; is more productive in situ; and, he/she has a job that is much less stifling than the present construct.

The next step lies in clever construct of the proposed ATCOTS contract, the essence of which is to shift the training burden from the FAA to a private contractor and to shift more of the financial burden onto the student, in the traditional model where one invests in his/her own education.  Within this context the selected contractor will make a substantial investment in infrastructure, facilities and staff so as to be able to pre-condition 1000, or so, aspiring students per year to a point that, with a high degree of confidence, they can be handed off to FAA for final certification.  The latter certification would be a condition of contractor compensation.  Fully implemented, the ATCOTS model should solve almost all of the OJT problems and substantially shorten the time between the person becoming an FAA employee and their entering a fully productive controller role.  FAA avoids 18 months of salary for the student, many hours of OJT instructor time and meets the steep hiring curve resulting from accelerated attrition of the current workforce.  However, as suggested above, I see the continuing need for TSAT contract employees supporting those final FAA certification activities that are beyond the province of the ATCOTS contract. This is a departure from present FAA thinking that envisions the TSAT contract terminating once ATCOTS is up and running. This also suggests that the TSAT contractor and the ATCOTS contractor could well have a conflict of interest as the former helps FAA evaluate or process the “product” of the latter.

The final piece of my grand scenario is linked to the NGATS deployment or at least to those considerations around making aircraft transiting the NAS more disciplined and self sufficient in a system that involves much higher levels of automation.  In NGATS, the role of the controller changes to one where the individual is not so concerned with the routine passage of individual flights but rather on the broader implications of traffic flows, impending weather conditions and true emergencies. This era, which is even now being incrementally introduced with increasingly more powerful decision aids for the controller, will liberate the human from the dulling, repetitive job currently associated with air traffic control. The emerging job will require people with more, not less, intellect and creativity. To succeed, these people will have to be well schooled and honed to respond to a wide spectrum of possible situations that will be far less predictable and, hopefully, even less frequent than those that could face the controller workforce of today. This era, where the controller is an airspace manager, will itself necessitate training the likes of which we have not yet employed or planned for. It will also be the end of the mythical, over stressed controller of today.

Published originally in Spring 2007 – Journal of Air Traffic Control, Volume 49, Issue 1




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4 Comments on "Debunking the Myth of the Air Traffic Controller by Frank Frisbie"

  1. Damn Frank you were doing all right till the last sentence…


    JFK “artist” (ret)

  2. Mike Pickering | May 10, 2020 at 11:16 am | Reply

    Spoken like a true bureaucrat that never worked an airplane in his life and thinks that controllers want to be like him. Most controllers enjoy and are proud of the job they have and don’t want to do anything else, unlike what the author betrays.

  3. Hi Frank,

    There are two contradictory sentences I hope you can help me with. You say:

    (1) “You retire in 20 years or at age 56 whether you want to or not”, and
    (2) “Because of the ‘controller strike’ in 1981 where FAA ‘fired’ thousands of controllers for an illegal job action, almost all of the controllers presently employed date their service from the early 1980s.”

    This would mean all the post-strike controllers would have been forced out almost 20 years ago and thus there cannot be a contemporaneous “attrition situation which looms over the entire landscape”.

    Even taking into account the major letdown last sentence of the article (it was written 17 years ago), the math still doesn’t work out. Any contribution from other readers on this factual point would be appreciated.



  4. I spent 35 years as a CPC in an Enroute facility. It was only boring when there was little or no traffic. The traffic flow was anything but routine and repetitive. One or two aircraft being earlier or later than usual could change the whole dynamics of the ever changing mix of aircraft which came in rushes of crossing aircraft on specific sectors at generally the same times. When daylight savings time began this whole flux changed times. Add daily changes in just the upper wind direction and speed, weather to be avoided, Flow Control changing the route of aircraft to accommodate landing at a distant airport, chop, pilot requests to change altitude. Always dynamic demanding focused attention and flexibility, looking ahead for possible conflicts. Not a moment to be bored. I retired 3 years after he wrote this. I don’t think he was a CPC.

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