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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Sky-high careers:
Jobs related to airlines

Tamara Dillon


Air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers decide when and where a plane can fly. They must be as prepared as possible, but, because they never fully know what will happen with the planes, they also must be flexible. If you are organized, adaptable, and can make decisions rapidly under pressure, you might enjoy a career in air traffic control.

Duties. Air traffic controllers work at airports, Air Route Traffic Control Centers, or Flight Service Stations. In each location, these workers control flights within their airspace, transferring to another controller the flights that leave their space and receiving from other controllers the flights that enter it.

Controllers at airports work in large towers, directing air traffic in the terminal area so it flows smoothly and efficiently. Tower controllers typically begin the workday by talking to a flight service specialist about weather conditions and flight plans. The tower controller opens the tower, checks equipment, and reviews the day’s flight plans on the computer.

Tower controllers give pilots taxiing and takeoff instructions, air traffic clearances, and advice. They base these communications on their own observations and information they receive from the National Weather Service, route traffic control centers, flight service stations, and aircraft pilots.

To keep landing and departing aircraft separate, tower controllers must be able to quickly recall registration numbers of aircraft under their control, the aircraft types and speeds, positions in the air, and the locations of navigational aids or landmarks in the area.

Controllers working in route traffic control centers give aircraft instructions, air traffic clearances, and advice regarding conditions during flight. They provide for separation between aircraft flying along Federal airways or operating into or out of airports not served by a terminal facility.

Control center controllers use computer equipment, radio, radar, telephones, and other electronic and manual devices to track the progress of flights within the center’s airspace. The use of radar equipment requires that they work in semi-darkness. And, unlike tower controllers, center controllers never actually see the aircraft that they control except as "targets" on the radar scope.

Controllers working in flight service stations provide preflight, in-flight, and emergency help to pilots who request it. They communicate information about both actual and forecast weather conditions, relay air traffic control instructions, assist pilots in emergencies, provide airport advisory service, and initiate and participate in searches for late or missing aircraft.

Directing the Nation’s air traffic can be stressful, controllers say, but the pressure usually ends at the conclusion of their shift. To minimize the stress associated with the job, requirements specify that controllers must work in their positions for no longer than 2 consecutive hours and must take breaks. And at the end of their shifts, controllers are done; they rarely stay late or take work home with them.

Employment and earnings. There were about 23,240 air traffic controllers in May 2006, according to BLS. Nearly all of them were employed by the FAA—part of the Federal Government.

Air traffic controllers are among the highest paid occupations in the United States. According to BLS, median annual salaries of air traffic controllers in May 2006 were $117,240.

Qualifications and training. Applicants for air traffic controller positions must be no older than age 30 and must not have reached their 31st birthday at the time of appointment. They must be U.S. citizens and able to speak English clearly enough to be understood over radios, intercoms, and similar communications equipment.

According to the FAA, air traffic controllers must demonstrate potential for learning and performing this type of work. They show this potential either by having gained work experience in technical positions, by earning a bachelor’s degree to substitute for the experience requirement, or by having a combination of work experience and college credits, with 1 year of undergraduate study equaling 9 months of general experience. Certain kinds of aviation experience may be substituted for these requirements.

The FAA also hires graduates of FAA-approved postsecondary educational programs, current or former Federal employees with prior air traffic control experience, and former or retired military controllers.

Applicants to air traffic controller positions must also pass an entry-level employment examination. Candidates who successfully pass the employment exam and are tentatively selected must also pass a medical exam that includes vision and hearing tests, a security and background investigation, and a pre-employment drug test.

Applicants who have no prior work experience in air traffic control must achieve a qualifying score on an FAA-authorized test. This test is administered by computer and takes about 8 hours to complete. Candidates must first apply for an opening and then be selected to take the test.

Flight attendants

Flight attendants are the face of the airlines. They constitute most of the contact between airlines and their customers, and they often are the basis for comparison between airlines. A flight attendant’s role is to assist passengers and ensure their safety throughout the flight.

Duties. Flight attendants first assist passengers in boarding the plane: checking tickets, helping passengers stow their carry-on bags, and answering questions. They help to prepare the plane’s cabin for departure by closing and locking the doors; checking the aisles, rows, and storage bins for loose items; and ensuring that all passengers are safely seated.

Flight attendants make announcements during flights using the in-cabin public address system. And depending on the length of the flight and the time of day, attendants are responsible for serving food and beverages and providing blankets or other amenities during the flight.

In addition to passenger comfort, passenger safety is an important part of the flight attendants’ job. Flight attendants explain safety procedures and make sure that each passenger follows regulations, which they enforce as pleasantly as possible. During emergencies, such as evacuations, they also direct passengers in where to go and what to do.

Dealing with passengers often takes patience and finesse. Some passengers may become unruly over circumstances that may be out of the airlines’ control, such as delays on the runway due to bad weather. Flight attendants calm these passengers and try to remain professional even during the most challenging situations.

But flight attendants’ work extends beyond passenger care. Along with the rest of the crew, attendants go to preflight briefings to learn from the pilot about weather conditions, special passenger needs, or other concerns related to the flight. Then, attendants check all emergency equipment, the public address system, and supplies of food, beverages, and other necessities.

When the plane lands, flight attendants assist passengers in deplaning. Some airlines also require attendants to tidy the cabin by performing tasks such as folding blankets, wiping down equipment, and straightening curtains or shades. Attendants also report in writing about anything noteworthy related to the flight, including minor medication given to passengers, articles lost or found, and equipment requiring attention.

Passenger assistance, though, remains one of the things that flight attendants say they like best about their work. Helping passengers, while sometimes challenging, is also rewarding: Attendants can lessen a traveler’s distress or fear, making the flight more enjoyable for him or her. And flight attendants are often outgoing, so they enjoy meeting travelers from across the country and around the world.

Employment and earnings. Flight attendants held about 96,760 jobs in May 2006. Most of them were with commercial airlines.

Median annual salaries of flight attendants were $53,780 in May 2006, according to BLS. Flight attendant pay is based almost entirely on seniority and varies by airline, but attendants can increase their earnings by working additional hours and flights. With experience, flight attendants can become lead attendants and get more or preferred assignments, such as international flights.

Qualifications and training. The minimum age requirement for flight attendants is usually 19, but most airlines prefer attendants who are at least 21. Corrected vision, either with contact lenses or glasses, is acceptable for flight attendants. Most airlines also have rules relating to appearance, such as acceptable grooming practices, required uniforms, and maximum allowances for body weight that vary by height.

Flight attendants need good communication skills. Fluency or some level of competence in a foreign language may be required to work some international flights.

Applicants should also have some previous experience, especially in dealing with the public in a job that focuses on customer service. Experience that proves your independence and self-confidence is also helpful because during flights, attendants often make decisions independently. But experience need not be paid to be considered valuable. Applicants should also note meaningful volunteer work, such as assisting with a political campaign, school committee, or community service program.

Flight attendants must have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, but many airlines also require a minimum of 2 years in college or work experience in customer service. A bachelor’s degree is helpful when competing for jobs and is often preferred—and may soon be required—by some airlines.

After they are hired, flight attendants have 3 to 8 weeks of training. This training covers all aspects of their future duties, including emergency evacuation procedures, first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and passenger psychology. New hires must also learn FAA regulations, food and beverage service procedures, and methods for assisting certain passengers, such as unaccompanied minors. Trainees also get airline-specific instruction, including learning about its fleet of aircraft and other types of equipment, to prepare them to work on any type of plane.

At the end of this training, flight attendants become certified by passing an FAA emergency procedures test and an instructor-administered exam. Certified flight attendants usually report immediately to their assigned base of operations after graduation, sometimes working a flight the following day.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007