Careers in air traffic control: A window of opportunity

An air traffic control graduate from UAA can earn $40,000 their first year out of training and have job security for their entire professional career. And because of an ill-fated strike in the 80’s, these government jobs will be wide open in 2012.

Thirty years ago, air traffic controllers illegally protested low pay, bad equipment and poor working conditions. As a result, 11,000 men and women were fired. President Ronald Reagan deemed their pay-raise attempt a ‘peril to national safety’, and pulled them from the towers. This massive hole in traveling infrastructure left 7,000 flights cancelled without a contingency plan.

To keep the country running smoothly, supervisors and non-striking workers joined with military controllers to bridge the transportation gap. The FAA hired over 10,000 controllers in the three to four years following the strike, according to Sharon LaRue, an associate professor in UAA’s aviation department.

However, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) law forces air traffic controllers to retire at 56. Because so many men and women were trained at the same time, they will be forced to retire in or around 2012, leaving an open job market available for skilled and trained workers.

“When controllers have 20 years of service, they’re eligible to retire. Every 20 years, we’ll see a cycling through because of that strike,” said Allen Hoffman, an associate professor in UAA’s aviation department.

This trend leaves the job market available for graduates. Because UAA is one of 31 accredited Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) schools, students can get an air traffic controlling degree from the Community and Technical College as either an associates or bachelors degree.

Graphic by Corey Beaudrie

“Training takes from one year to five years, depending on the type of facility,” LaRue said. “A low activity tour, like Merrill, will be done quite quickly, probably around a year, including time at Oklahoma City, where new employees have additional training from six to 12 weeks before reporting to a facility.”

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In layman terms, a UAA student can be trained and employed as an air traffic controller in a year, after getting a two or four year degree.

However, there is a waiting period before being hired. Jasen Perkins, a student in the aviation program at UAA, was told that the job market in air traffic controlling is actually very limited at the moment.

“I, as well as my graduating class, was told that we would have a one to two year wait depending on job availability. I keep hearing from my peers as well as professors at the Aviation Complex that 2012 is going to be the year when most hiring is done,” Perkins said.

Hoffman and LaRue noted that hiring and pay depend on the location in which the controller wants to work. They are more likely to be hired in the lower 48 than in Alaska. In addition, controllers at higher frequency airports have higher salaries.

“Places like Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Washington DC are paid at a higher rate based on a strange and complex formula based on how busy that facility is,” Hoffman said.

Regardless of the money and job security, not everyone is cut out to be an air traffic controller. Hoffman noted that most people will find it difficult, but some people completely feel at home directing flight traffic. LaRue described successful air traffic controller attributes as a good memory, the ability to prioritize and a sense of scale.

“You do have to have faith in your own judgment and try to avoid second-guessing yourself,” LaRue said. Perkins considered his background in flying another positive attribute.

“It gives you another perspective from the pilot’s standpoint as well as a little more knowledge than a student with little to none, entering the program at the same time as you,” Perkins said.

Todda Yonge, a current air traffic controller in Anchorage, described his job as unique. He chose to enter the field when he was working towards a commercial pilot’s license and realized that the job market for pilots was fragile.

“(Air traffic controlling) was the next best thing in my book,” Yonge said.

When asked how he feels about the massive hiring in the future, he was optimistic.

“The influx of new people is a good thing. You end up with more balanced crews with more overlap to be able to handle any traffic situations,” Yonge said.

Yonge also noted that he plans on working as a controller for 25 years. In a field where a mistake such as falling asleep on the job or watching a movie is terms for suspension, firing is fairly rare.

“It costs (the FAA) about a quarter million dollars to train an air traffic controller. You’ll learn and be trained through government money. It is unlikely, unless you do something bad, that you’ll be fired,” Hoffman said.