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In my experience, almost every time the topic of air traffic control (as a career) comes up in conversation, someone makes a remark like

Air traffic control - isn't that a very stressful job?

Notwithstanding the fact that this point could be debated, surely there are many other "stressful" jobs which don't receive this kind of response.

My question is this: How did the "stressful" air traffic control job become such a common perception?

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  • $\begingroup$ Grab one of the ATC listening apps on Google Play or the App Store. Tune into a busy ATC position. Listen. :) How many jobs can you think of with such high pressure and such high consequence of error? Bump two wide bodies into each other and you might cause hundreds of deaths in one day, and you get to miss making that mistake dozens of times per day. $\endgroup$ – Simon Mar 4 '15 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Because: they have millions of lives under their purview each day; they "control" airspace in which move machines full of people and not under their actual physical control; they are always perceived as 'responsible' for the actions of other people; if they get even one thing wrong, the ramifications (can be) are enormous; in any given second, an emergency or crisis can develop and overwhelm themselves and their equipment; all of this is using relatively old technology with imperfect visualization of 4 dimensional space... are you trolling or serious? $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Mar 4 '15 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ I tend to disagree with the "lives in the balance" bit. The air traffic controllers mantra is the safe expeditious flow of traffic. ATC greatly increases the number of operations that can be safely conducted in a given airspace, and to the safety aspect, ATC essentially just enforces given separation minima (be it MVA's or aircraft). If a controller's scan breaks down and he has a deal (loss of separation) he gets written up and probably relieved for that shift. Airplanes don't suddenly explode at 2.9nm lateral separation. I imagine most of the stress is not losing your job. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Mar 5 '15 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell +1 but no single controller is ever looking after anything like millions of passengers in a single day. Even the world's busiest airport (Atlanta) only handles a little over a quarter of a million passengers a day. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 5 '15 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ Download and play Flight Control game, and imagine there's a third dimension, radio comms, and real lives on the plane every time you lose the game. Do it for the whole day, and do it everyday. See how long you can keep your sanity. $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Mar 5 '15 at 11:36
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Some very spot-on comments, some comments that are totally ignorant of the job. I am a retired ATC, 32 years. I worked at one of the world's busiest and most complex US facilities (as described by many independent sources).

Have you ever:

  • Heard a family on the other end of the radio screaming just moments before they were obliterated in the air by a military fighter flying VFR?
  • Tried in vain to find a way to contact the occupants of Payne Stewart's jet only to watch helplessly as it finally crashes after several hours of flight?
  • Had 30+ airliners in your sector which happens to be dotted with Level 5 thunderstorms? The amount of airspace you now have has decreased substantially and the aircraft all need to deviate. They all want to either go in different directions, or they all want to head towards the few clear spots left. You sit there for 2 hours directing aircraft to basically thread a needle at 500mph and pulling out every trick in your book to ensure that there is enough space to ensure all 30+ aircraft (and more, because those aircraft never stop coming) make it through your airspace without encountering the dangers of severe weather or coming into physical contact with another aircraft. Aircraft that are often executing movements that they don't have clearance for, which requires quick and accurate reaction from the controller.
  • Dealt with one of the times when a corporate jet "flames out" at 43,000 feet and immediately descends through a dozen or more jets flying the same path, requiring the controller to immediately clear all of those aircraft out of the path of that corporate jet.
  • Had a small twin prop lose all electronics and be unable to navigate properly while in a thick cloud layer. His portable radio is not working properly, so radio communications must be short and accurate. (Remember, you have another sector full of aircraft that you are also providing services to). Finally, his portable radio fail. Right before that, you ask the pilot if he has a cell phone. He does. You give him a phone number and you and he are able to communicate via telephone to finally guide him to a safe landing at Newport News Airport.

I could write a book about many specific events that controllers have experienced. The "pucker factor" events.

But the real stress is the long term chronic stress that the job presents. Certainly, there are facilities that are both low traffic and have uncomplicated operations. If you are lucky enough to work at one of these (and willing to accept the low end of the pay scale) then stress is probably much lower and stressful events infrequent. But for the majority of controllers (who work at a number of very high traffic facilities; air traffic in the US is higher and more complicated than the next 29 countries' air traffic, combined) the stress is a chronic, continuous level (not the big adrenalin-pumping situations) from being attached to your position for several hours, trying to maintain a constant "big picture", maintaining situational awareness, issuing control instructions to ensure that SAFETY is always the first product of your efforts. Many, if not most, controllers will most likely retire with high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep disorders, etc. that despite best efforts to exercise and live a healthy lifestyle will probably affect a controller for the remainder of their life.

Certainly, other jobs are stressful, and I would never try to compare one as "more stressful" than the other. The top ones are all stressful. But those that try to downplay the stress of air traffic control would only need to visit a busy air traffic control facility for a day and they would see and probably feel the stress themselves.

I have a very good friend that is an FBI field agent in Washington, DC. He has worked on some very high-profile cases. We were talking one day and he said something about the stress of air traffic control. I chuckled saying that at least I wasn't being faced by some of the most dangerous people in the country. But his response was that in his job they have detailed plans for what they do. His raids were in the middle of the night when these people were asleep and unsuspecting. He had a well-trained team that each had specific responsibilities. They had plenty of firepower and protective equipment. He said that most of his operations were quite easy and they experienced little resistance. He did have moments of intensity, but he (who had visited an air traffic facility) did not think the stress he experienced was anywhere near to what he saw at the air traffic control facility.

But I still would not want to be a law enforcement officer, nor a school teacher for that matter! My personality was a good match for the job of air traffic control. But now that I am retired, I take blood pressure medicine, am borderline diabetic despite a regular exercise program and am within a healthy weight and eat very healthy. I also still have sleep apnea and other sleep issues that I see a sleep doctor several times a year for. All of my present health issues, which are well-controlled, are according to the doctors a direct effect of the stresses of being an air traffic controller.

Air traffic control IS stressful. Is it more stressful than other jobs? I doubt it. And to argue about whose job is more stressful is a silly exercise. The trick is having a personality that meshes with the job. If you are in a job that is not a good match, that is stressful.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE. Way to hit it out of the park on your first answer! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 5 '15 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ I think that the schedule and irregular sleep schedule also plays a part in this too. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Nov 1 '15 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ A salute to you sir! $\endgroup$ – Firee Feb 25 '16 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ I just re-read this and was thinking I needed to compliment you on your great answer. It seems this wasn't a new feeling. I will, however, add a THANK YOU for helping so many people get where they were going safely and without incident. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Feb 25 '16 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ indeed. So many people think only jobs that include hard physical labour are tough. They think ATC and office workers have it easy "you just sit behind a desk all day", never even considering that mental stress is as harmful (if not more so in ways) than physical stress. I've worked on development of traffic control software, the stress there was real too. Every mistake we made in coding that stuff could cost peoples' lives. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 17 '17 at 12:52
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I'll answer from a US perspective, since that's where most of the studies I've seen come from, coupled with working in the US system.

I'll point out a few areas the statistics possibly show issues. There are less than 15,000 controllers in the US(estimated, from memory and older sources). Most other professions usually are far larger, and such that an occurrence/issue in the controller population often pushes it higher in statistics.

But, it is a very demanding job, and a very demanding training environment at a lot of facilities. In the past, if you had 3 losses of separation, within a year, you would be penalized big time, to either a lower facility, or to firing, this increases the stress level in the past studies. The punitive nature has changed to a different system, that doesn't fire someone, unless if it was blantant disregard of the rules, but an incident(loss of separation to accident or any thing else) still can take the toll on a person. In training, you're pushed to be perfect, in terms of spacing, to phraseology, to procedures, to complex airspace, to vast rule books.

The rule books, if printed out, are generally 500-700 pages each. There's ~3-4 main ones, and tons of little ones. The rules are in a continous change state, and where one thing is legal one day, could be completely changed over the course of a week(rare, but it has happened). Plus each facility has numerous procedure documents and letters of agreements with facilities or agencies that they have to work with. This makes a controler have to have a vast knowledge of rules and how they all interact.

Routine situations, even with lots of traffic become easy to handle, once you know what to do and when. It's when the **** hits the fan, that it becomes stressful, whether it's student pilots, language barriers, emergiencies(and there's various kinds that either don't phase you or those that can completely wreck you), to the worst thing, weather.

There's other reasons that it can be highly stressful, from medical rules, to just raw work rules and management issues.

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It is a common perception because it is a reality.

Listen to Live ATC tapes of the final approach to ORD. These controllers are talking non-stop, making decisions and issuing instructions that very literally have hundreds of lives in the balance. If they get it wrong, it is not just "oops, let's try better next time". It has to be right every time.

Now some - in fact many - ATC positions are far less busy and stressful. So it all depends....

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    $\begingroup$ The question is not just why it is stressful, but why it is perceived as stressful. As it points out, there are other stressful jobs that aren't always perceived as such. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 4 '15 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @fooot Such as? And to quibble over "perception" is a bit of a tautology. As Skip says, it's perceived as stressful because it is stressful. $\endgroup$ – Simon Mar 4 '15 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon Perception does not always follow reality. I did a search for "stressful jobs" and the list I found had a bunch that surprised me. Pilot was on there but not ATC. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 4 '15 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @fooot If the question is "Why are stressful jobs that have nothing to do with aviation perceived as being more stressful than working in ATC?", that's way off-topic. If the question is "Why is the stressful job of ATC perceived as stressful?", that's a question about people's perception of stress, and not aviation, so that's off-topic, too. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 5 '15 at 10:10
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"Air Traffic Controller" is a poorly understood job and isn't personally dangerous. The member of the general public has little knowledge apart from its listing as extremely stressful (top five!).

The perception may well be accurate, but the perception itself is based on this combination:

  • "Air traffic controller" shows up in mass media lists of "most stressful jobs" (one example)
  • It does not share the perception of danger that other stressful jobs do.
  • The general public has very little ability to relate to the job.

In the example link above, the five most stressful jobs are

  1. Inner-city High School Teacher
  2. Police Officer
  3. Miner
  4. Air Traffic Controller
  5. Medical Intern

The police officer and miner definitely have the perception of incurring personal danger. So I would bet that police officers and miners get asked, "Isn't that a dangerous job?" before they're asked if it's stressful. Inner-city High School Teachers probably share some of the perception of personal danger as "the inner-city" is stereotypically dangerous.

"Inner-city High School Teacher" and "Medical Intern" are both part of helping professions where the vast majority of people have been on the receiving end of direct contact (as a student and patient). Conversation topics can cover many aspects of these professions before the member of the general public can no longer relate.

"Air Traffic Controller"? Um, that must be a stressful job, huh?

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    $\begingroup$ I think this actually does the best job of addressing the perception of stress for ATC. People just can't relate to it. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Feb 25 '16 at 15:12
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Not that it had that big of an effect but there was a movie made in the 90's (Pushing Tin) about air traffic controllers and the stress the job brings. In typical Hollywood fashion there are some over dramatic moments, but its not a terrible movie if you like aviation. I would watch it.

Again I don't think it has a huge effect on how people view controllers but its worth bringing up.

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    $\begingroup$ I think a big part is how the job is portrayed on TV so this is a good example. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 4 '15 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ They did a impressive job animating how a controller thinks and visualizes the operation. $\endgroup$ – slookabill Mar 4 '15 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ Awwww, I love that movie. I hear New York TRACON is still waiting for their beach to be installed. Stupid FAA budget cuts... $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 5 '15 at 7:05
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With 22 years experience as an air traffic controller I can remember several times where I was put under stressful conditions. Mostly it was the result of too many airplanes that I was comfortable with. You really have to lift your game during those times and hope your work mates can put the "brakes on" if necessary. I don't know if stress is the right word for those busy times as you are so busy keeping aircraft apart you don't think of anything else. As what has been said earlier you really have to have the right personality for the job. I never took the job home with me which was a good thing.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE! Always good to see controllers actively participating. $\endgroup$ – Greg Bacon May 17 '17 at 14:05
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ATC controllers have to deal with high stakes, high risk, and limited senses.

A pilot has final say over what happens on his plane, but the ATC gives quite strong commands to a pilot. ATC is "the birds eye view" of the sky, and as such, their opinion over what should happen carries a remarkable amount of sway. A bad command could put a pilot in a particularly bad place where correcting the situation could tax the physical capabilities of the airplane as the pilot acts to recover.

They are also in a very monetarily important position. They are responsible for getting as many planes as possible landing or taking off, given resource constraints like "runways." Being cautious can cost large companies a great deal of money, so there is a strong incentive to allow as many planes per hour as possible. This raises the stakes, as you have more opportunities to fail to properly juggle a large volume of information.

However, the viewpoint and control you have is limited. You have a radar view, and a radio to communicate. Compared with the amount of activity going on, those tools are quite limited.

In the rest of the sky, there's enough space to get the planes separated and establish simpler rules which keep people safe. In these focused areas of complexity around the airports, we rely on ATC to make sure nothing goes wrong.

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Well, is the job actually stressful?

Whether or not their job is actually stressful is the decision of each individual controller. The job does attract a certain kind of person...

It might be helpful to point out a few reasons why it might or might not be stressful.

At the end of the day, thousands of lives are on the line. Zero errors tolerated, 100% performance required, penalties including relatively quick demotion/firing.

On the other hand, losing separation doesn't mean a crash. There are tolerances built in to the rules.

Working in New York City is going to be more stressful than working in Standard Country Town.

Common misconceptions of ATC

The general public doesn't know that many controllers don't even work at airports. In reality, the largest facilities are not only located away from airports, they don't even deal with aircraft at airports!

This isn't unheard of either:

Air traffic control - those are the guys that wave the red batons at the plane, right?

The bottom line

Aviation can be inherently frightening. Perhaps this contributes.

The job is not common; people don't know about it. While ATC is similar to a police officer in some respects (relative boredom with brief times of sheer terror?), police officers are more common and well understood. Perhaps it is a function of familiarity.

And perhaps one can't get away from the image of a 747 falling out of the sky and the person who was supposed to "control" it.

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    $\begingroup$ Zero errors tolerated, 100% performance required: Stated this way, it is humanly impossible, and cannot be expected, so redundancy will be used. But the idea is any non-recovered failure may have catastrophic consequences. There are indeed several jobs in this category. Public is prompt to identify ATC as stressful, but is also prompt to blame an ATC (e.g. Überlingen collision) without understanding the full chain of common events that lead to a catastrophe. $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 4 '15 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ I think Überlingen is an especially good example in this particular case because a contributing factor to the collision was that one plane obeyed ATC instructions, and the other obeyed on-board TCAS instructions, when the two gave contradictory instructions which in turn caused their flight paths to intersect. See also Wikipedia: Überlingen mid-air collsion: Accident. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 2 '17 at 14:40

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