Hey air-traffic controllers – can we have a word for a minute?

Hi there.

You have been entrusted with a vital job in the workforce. It is on your shoulders to make sure that every single person that flies through the air lands safely. I get it. I think that you have one the more thankless jobs in this country, because nobody will ever hear your name unless you make a major mistake. Most of you get paid fairly well, it seems.

From the Bureau of Labor Statistics website:

Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits. Median annual wages of air traffic controllers in May 2008 were $111,870. The middle 50 percent earned between $71,050 and $143,780. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $161,010. The average annual salary, excluding overtime earnings, for air traffic controllers in the Federal Government—which employs 90 percent of all controllers—was $109,218 in March 2009.

The Air Traffic Control pay system classifies each air traffic facility into one of eight levels with corresponding pay bands. Under this pay system, controllers’ salaries are determined by the rating of the facility. Higher ratings usually mean higher controller salaries and greater demands on the controller’s judgment, skill, and decision-making ability.

Depending on length of service, air traffic controllers receive 13 to 26 days of paid vacation and 13 days of paid sick leave each year, in addition to life insurance and health benefits. Controllers also can retire at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than other Federal employees. Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service as an active air traffic controller or after 25 years of active service at any age. There is a mandatory retirement age of 56 for controllers who manage air traffic. However, Federal law provides for exemptions to the mandatory age of 56, up to age 61 in certain cases, but controllers must have exceptional skills and experience. Earnings and benefits for controllers working in contract towers or flight service stations may vary. Many air traffic controllers hold union membership, primarily with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

I think you deserve to be well-paid because of what’s at stake here. Of the many considerations, concerns, and fears people have about flying, I would venture to say that most do not factor in which air-traffic controller is on duty, and how good they are at their job.

I’m sure that the map of flights cross-country looks something like this, and it’s not such an easy job. We need you to do your job well, unless we should all only buy one-way tickets. To the best of my knowledge, you “guys and gals of the high tower” do a good job, because most people never even consider collisions with other aircraft, or any of the twenty other things I’m sure you do.

Are you in charge of deciding which planes take off in which order? If so, I’m sorry to hear that. People hate you when they hear that they’re number 24 on the list, but we know it’s one of those “someone’s gotta do it” jobs where friends are seldom made. I guess the anonymity works in your favor this time.

Hey, while I have you here. Is there any way you can stay awake? I know you mostly do, which is important, but I mean, twice in the past few weeks? The first time, March 23rd, a supervisor controlling traffic at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was asleep, and two planes almost crashed because there was nobody there to guide them. Not good. The other one involved another controller sleeping in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I realize that you’re understaffed, and that it’s the midnight shift, but isn’t this the type of job where one screw-up is way too many? I’m with the FAA. There needs to be two of you up there. One to do the work, and the other to snooze or look out the window at the pretty things below.