Pam Choi recalls her answer, soon after graduating from the FAA Academy, when the tower chief asked what best prepared her, a former waitress, to be an air traffic controller (ATC).
“I said, ‘I’m guessing ATC is very similar to waiting tables: You’re either very busy or very slow, you have to be polite and considerate to your customer, well organized, aware of things changing around you all the time, and constantly changing your plan while working with the front and back of the house.’ He said, ‘My gosh — that’s exactly what it’s like!'”
That was in 1991, and after 25 years of serving her customers, Choi has just hit the controller’s mandatory retirement age of 56. As part of her next chapter in life, she wants to educate students about opportunities in the field. “I’ve been so fortunate in my career,” she says. Especially considering it almost vanished before commencing.
“I was never into aviation,” Choi says, recounting her Chicago roots and Florida upbringing. But after occupations, including singer and musician, English teacher in Europe, retail clerk and waitress, the high-school grad realized, “I needed a real job.” She saw an ATC recruitment ad and figured her aptitude for math and communication skills would make her a good candidate. But she learned that her upcoming 31st birthday would push her over the age limit, so, without any preparatory work, she took the application test cold the following week. Two weeks before her birthday, the FAA notified Choi she’d passed and earned a spot at the Academy.
Choi was first assigned to Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) in Los Angeles. Controllers can bid for assignments and chart their own career paths, but SMO proved to be ideal for Choi, and, other than a brief stint at Long Beach Airport (LGB), she spent her entire career there. In addition to tower controller, she was a safety counselor, pilot outreach representative, facility representative to NATCA (the ATC’s union), on the elite ATC team that “trained the trainers” at major ATC facilities nationwide, and served on the Southern California Metroplex Study team, which has developed more than 150 new procedures that will improve traffic flow in the region’s airspace. “You don’t have to strive to be top controller at LA Center,” the married mother says. “There’s nothing wrong with staying where you’re happiest.”
Enviable salaries complement an ATC’s challenging and rewarding work. Starting pay in the Los Angeles region ranges from about $58,000 to $67,000, and experienced senior specialists earn between about $134,000 and $182,000. (In 2014, Forbes listed air traffic controller among the ten highest-paying jobs.)
Today, university programs offer training for ATC careers, but the FAA Academy remains open to all qualified candidates. Choi’s advice for aspirants who are unable to enroll in an ATC degree program: “Study math and communications, and get a college degree in anything you have an interest in.” And if you make the team, even though you’ll have time for a second career like Choi did, that doesn’t mean you have to give up all the perks of the first.
“I’ve already been out flying with some of my pilot friends,” she says. “I definitely will stay involved with the Santa Monica Airport community.”