I am an Air Traffic Controller in New York at the NYARTCC (New York Air Route Traffic Control Center) and have been doing it for just over twenty years. I am a speculator as well and find the challenges of speculation far more abundant, subtle and difficult to meet than those of ATC. I can say that I love my job as it provides satisfaction on multiple levels. It is very rewarding from a problem/solution point of view, as complex scenarios in ATC can be solved with simple, sometimes truly elegant solutions. The more elegant the more rewarding.

The initial challenges in learning ATC involve acquiring knowledge of different aircraft types and their performance characteristics. For instance certain types of Cessna Citations are very, very slow but can climb to very high altitudes so a typical strategy for dealing with them might be to climb them and let following traffic run past underneath. But the absolute fastest civilian aircraft out there is also a Cessna Citation so it is crucial that you know which kind you are dealing with. Heavy jets tend to be fast, Boeing aircraft tend to outclimb Airbus aircraft by a large factor (which is why all controllers prefer Boeing as they can get out of the way faster), newer aircraft with highly efficient wings cannot descend quickly while going slow so that has to be taken into account when setting up an intrail operation where arrivals must be descended as well as slowed down.

It is important to teach trainees to get rid of their expectations and just see the data. Getting used to capturing the data from the screen is difficult; for instance, a controller might notice two aircraft in trail on the same airway and not notice a severe overtake especially if he expects the front aircraft to be faster. A saying we have at our facility is “The faster aircraft will always overtake the slower aircraft regardless of type.” Once controllers learn to “see traffic” (meaning conflicts) they have to learn how to solve the conflicts, preferably in the simplest, most advantageous manner. It can be as simple as stopping someone's climb/descent to pass below/above converging traffic or issuing speed assignments to insure constant spacing. But busy sectors with complex traffic require more.

Being able to work a heavy, complex traffic requires many things: the ability to communicate effectively with pilots and other controllers, ambiguity must be eliminated. Timing is important, prioritizing (arrivals must come down, departures can tolerate a delayed climb), an ability to run through possible solutions and quickly choose the best one is a skill that requires good training and lots of practice (I like to ask trainees on occasion to come up with five solutions to a problem whose best solution is obvious), being able to make a bad situation work after having made a poor decision is a necessary skill, that having been said, the ability to plan ahead is probably the most important skill in ATC (as in trading, plan the trade, trade the plan). A good plan will usually prevent boneheaded moves and their ensuing madness. The ability to maintain some semblance of calm during busy stressful periods is also important in ATC as in trading. I try to teach trainess to talk painfully slowly when busy as this tends to slow their breathing and calm them down with the additional and important benefit of making sure they are heard correctly the first time, preventing the need to repeat themselves.

I am constantly finding parallels between working traffic and speculating, but ATC is easy for me now and I fear speculating will never be. That won’t stop me though! For those with an abiding curiosity about the somewhat mystical world of Air Traffic Control, I can recommend where you can look for ATC radio frequencies near you and listen in on controllers and pilots in real time. The “Top 30 Live ATC Feeds” is a good place to start. Also of interest, for those who have the stomach for it, is a fascinating documentary of the events of 9/11 called “Chasing Planes” which is a special feature on the two disc limited edition of the film United 93.





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8 Comments so far

  1. vic niederhoffer on March 15, 2009 11:56 pm

    The two disc set "Chasing Planes" sounds fascinating and I will get it. However, could someone tell us what its significance is before that so we can get to the heart of it. Mr. Tucker is to be complimented for his insights, and we can feel a fine comfort in knowing that such as he protects us in the air and can only hope that we could protect him as much on the floor of the market. As James Lorie and Milton Friedman often said, the government can do just as good a job as the private sector as long as the goals are clear and they often point to the Manhattan project and the operations research of WW2 as proof. Margaret Thatcher might disagree, pointing to the problem of innovation and expansion of winners and contraction of losers (a feature of the pre 2006 enterprise system) as counters. vic

  2. Pal on March 16, 2009 10:00 am

    thank you, i really enjoyed your writing. However, i would really be interested to know how you can handle two such stressful activities as trading and being an Air Traffic Controller. I think for a lot of folks ATC would already be more than what they could handle mentally… Is it possible that after working 8-10 (or more?) hours at the Control Center, you go home and then start looking at charts or whatever one uses for trading? Is there some special method for ATC people to get rid of their stress?

  3. Don Chu on March 16, 2009 10:03 am

    Mr. Christopher Tucker,


    Thank you (and those of your guild) for your work.
    Am a fan.


  4. acetrader on March 16, 2009 10:43 am

    Bravo to all air traffic controllers! Amazing the job you all do each and every day! Much respect!

  5. Christopher Tucker on March 16, 2009 5:56 pm

    Wow. Thank you for the compliments, they are much appreciated. To answer your question Vic, the reason “Chasing Planes” is so fascinating is because it consists of interviews with almost all of the air traffic controllers involved as well as in-depth interviews with the military and their activities on that day. Some of the interviews with the military personnel are very insightful and quite eye opening, even to me. The U.S. Air Force gave the film makers full access to their facilities for the film and the FAA denied access except for the Command Center in DC. I have yet to watch the feature film “United 93″, I am just not interested in seeing anyones vision of what happened inside those planes that day, just the thought is painful. It is interesting to note that almost all of the controllers in the film are played either by themselves or by other controllers. The controller who played me was a veteran controller from the New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control).
    As for the governments ability to do just as good a job as the private sector I would have to say that ATC is done well IN SPITE of the government and its multifarious levels of incompetence. I am constantly, constantly appalled at management in my field. I can only begin to tell you how trying it is to work with people who don’t know the first thing about basic managemnet principles, fiscal responsibility, technological innovation, you name it. The gap between where we are now and where we could be is shockingly vast. We have such tremendous resources in our people and with current technology and the bulk of them are being squandered. Daily.
    As for stress, its interesting in this job. People almost always bring this up when I tell them my profession. Most stress in this field has nothing at all to do with the fact that peoples lives are at stake, but with task overload. We are constantly reassessing, prioritizing and planning, executing and changing plans that aren’t working. Stress has a significant impact on many controllers, especially those who have been through something traumatic in the past. As with trading, most stress in my job comes during training. Fortunately trainess are always working with an instructor who provides immediate feedback and will prevent dangerous mistakes from occurring. Wish it were so with trading. The effects of stress can be cumulative as well and can be onerous if not addressed. As a resultt of the events of 9/11, I became a member of a Critical Incident Stress Management response team that travels around the country providing peer driven assistance to controllers that have been subjected to tragedy. This is run by our union, NATCA ( ) and paid for by the FAA. I was in Buffalo last week to work with the controllers there after the Colgan accident. A very experienced, very professional group of people that impressed me no end.
    Apart form my involvement with CISM, do I or other controllers do anything special to mitigate stress? Well not really. Physical exercise and deep breathing/relaxation exercises are probably the best antidotes in my book, although I will have to defer to the excellent Dr. Brett Steenbarger in this regard. I do quite a bit of deep relaxation in micro bits, even while working. We do find ourselves doing a lot of ribbing and chop busting while working. Controllers have a tendency to not tolerate incompetence well and we ride each other relentlessly when we see others making stupid mistakes. I think the joviality is a big stress mitigator. The best way to mitigate stress though is to avoid operating in such a way that places unnecesary stress on you. If I turn an aircraft to cross behind another aircraft and feel that the turn was not enough, then that feeling is telling me something important. So it is important to not TRY to solve a problem, but to kill it dead, completely and right away.
    I find trading to be stressful only when I have bit off more than I can chew. Then it becomes much worse than working traffic. I enjoy trading because it is just such a tough nut to crack. I find that even when I have written a system that produces high ratios of winners to losers and big winners v. small losers, I STILL have difficulty following my own rules. I love the process, the uncertainty, the way we interact with the process of risk taking and the rewards (okay, potential rewards in my case!). But there is something about the process that is so rewarding when everything comes together, things fall into place and the market, bizarrely, does just what I expected it to do.
    Thanks again to everyone for the kind words.

  6. anh minh on July 8, 2010 1:28 am

    I want to play

  7. Javier on April 23, 2012 6:29 pm

    Hi! I’m an Air traffic controller at colombia, i’m 19 years old and i really would like work a the United States, so i need your help, if you know how can i become an ATC in your country?? If you are an ATC and you know if FAA give could give me a license or something like that, please contact me! javi.gt14@ It’s really important for me

  8. Joe Schmo on July 19, 2013 2:20 am

    You come off as smug and looking for someone to pat you on the back. Congratulations, you’re an air traffic controller.


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