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Why you should care about the stress level of your air traffic controllers

AuthorThe AirHelper

You’d think that watching planes takeoff and land all day would be somewhat of a relaxing and meditative experience … think again.

Air traffic controllers – the men and women who sit in the glass tower overlooking the airport and conducting all the movements on the tarmac and landing strips – are some of the most stressed out workers in any industry. It’s easy to dismiss them in the whole cycle of flight delays and cancellations because you can’t see them. Nevertheless, the more you know about their daily activities the more you’ll be aware of how they impact your day as well.

If you have ever had a delayed or canceled flight, it might not always be abundantly clear why. The reasons could be countless, but few people are aware that the job of the air traffic controller has a large impact. It’s one of the most difficult roles in the travel industry and when they mess up, everyone is likely to feel it… which leads to enormous amounts of pressure placed on them.

Stressed to the max

According to the Christian Science Monitor website, air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs across any industry. These men and women work up to 40 hours straight. The total time most Americans spend working per week is what they execute in one stretch. It’s not like these shifts are consistent, either, as their working hours tend to be pretty strange.

Most airports have very little downtime. Air traffic controllers have to man the tower on nights, weekends and holidays as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. It helps that most of them are young. Entry-level applicants are expected to be under the age of 31 because the FAA seeks out workers who are more likely to remain alert on the job. Odd hours translate into very little sleep time and the added stress of running the airport’s operations cuts into time with family and friends. Both of these factors add up to stress and the potential for the controllers to have “off days” that could mean more delays and cancellations.

Delays and cancellations – is there a solution to the stress problem?

Working in an airport and making sure flights take off on time requires multiple people from many different departments to work together seamlessly and with almost military-level precision. Imagine the air traffic controller as the last man in the field. It begins and ends with him or her. If s/he is struggling with little sleep, and less time to take breaks and relax, the behaviors of the individual air traffic controller often has more power on your trip than you might think.

The obvious solution to relieve the burden on air traffic controllers whose actions indirectly increase the number of delays and cancellations is to change up the shift schedules or to look into different performance metrics. It’s no one person’s fault. Not many people can sustain an increased level of concentration over a long period of time; this can greatly affect not only individual performance, but also on-time flight performance. Delays and cancellations are still an ever-growing problem. According to WGN, major airlines have delays or cancellations for over 20% of their flights–Spirit Airlines records that 51% of their flights are either canceled or delayed. The time to re-evaluate the working conditions of air flight traffic controllers is now.

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