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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