8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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iStock

As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

14 Secrets of Cruise Ship Workers

iStock/Remus Kotsell
iStock/Remus Kotsell

From an outsider’s perspective, working on a cruise ship might seem like a dream job. What could be more glamorous than getting paid to travel the world by sea, without having to pay for housing or food? But as with many “dream” jobs, there are a few significant downsides to consider before you fill out an application. We spoke to a few cruise ship employees about what it’s like to live and work on a floating hotel.

1. Americans are the worst cruise workers.

On most large cruise liners, the majority of staff and crew are not American. “On any given contract, you’re working with about 64 nationalities,” says Kat, who spent three years working for a major cruise line. There are a number of possible drivers behind this statistic, but one is that cruise ship employees work really long hours and almost never get a day off, which isn’t particularly appealing to Americans used to a 40-hour workweek and relaxing on weekends. “On my worst contract, I was working close to 300 hours a month,” Kat says. “Yeah, you might be in beautiful places, but you’re so tired sometimes you don’t even want to go out and explore. A lot of times they won’t even hire Americans because the rate of people quitting is so high.”

Americans are also more expensive to employ, even if they do the same work as their counterparts from developing countries. Sam, who worked on Princess Cruises for two years, says her monthly salary of $1100 was higher than that of her Filipino boss. According to Sam, the official reason the ship gave was that the dollar is worth more to people from developing countries than it is to Americans.

2. Cruise ship workers are trained for pirate attacks.

It’s rare for pirates to take on a massive cruise ship, but it can happen, and if it does, the crew is prepared. Nolan, who worked for both Princess Cruises and Oceania Cruises, says he was trained to get all guests away from windows and spray the intruders with giant water cannons.

“Our ship can totally outrun their little dinghies,” he says. “We could spray them with water and they’d be helpless.” Other ships may be equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices that emit loud, painful noises to deter attacks. That’s how a luxury cruise liner escaped a pirate attack off the coast of Africa in 2005.

3. Want to lose weight? Work on a cruise liner.

While passengers are feasting on steak and scrumptious seafood, the staff and crew aren’t so lucky. “Imagine eating at your high-school cafeteria three meals a day, seven days a week for a year,” writes one former cruise ship worker on Reddit. Kat recalls strange offerings like goat foot stew. The unappetizing food, combined with the many hours spent running the length of the ship, often mean crew members lose a significant amount of weight during their time at sea. “I would lose about 10 to 12 pounds per contract,” Kat says.

Gavin, who worked as a waiter for a major cruise line, said the crew would occasionally get treated to whatever leftovers remained from the passenger buffet, but “it would disappear so fast.”

4. Crew members sometimes mess with passengers.

Life at sea can get a bit monotonous. “It got mundane really fast,” writes one former worker on Reddit. “It was basically the same comedy of errors each day of the week, with a different ‘cast’ of passengers each week.”

Some crew members shake things up by getting a rise out of passengers in the form of good old practical jokes. According to another former crew member, “a favorite was while in a passenger area say to another crew member, loud enough to be heard by passengers, ‘Meet you in the bowling alley tonight!’” Of course, there wasn’t actually a bowling alley on board. “Then we'd wait for the comment cards to come in: ‘Why do crew get a bowling alley when we don't?’”

5. … and chance are the workers might be drunk.

When they’re not working, employees are probably drinking and partying. “We partied our asses off,” Gavin says. “We joked about how it makes a frat house look like a monastery.” The staff get their own designated watering holes on board, referred to as the crew bars, where the drinks are dirt cheap. “At the passenger bars they were charging like $15 for a drink and we’d go down into the crew bar and you could get a beer or mixed drinks for $1.25,” Sam says.

And what happens when you give copious amounts of cheap alcohol to people who are cooped up together for months at a time? “It seems like a cliche, but everyone was hooking up with each other,” Sam says. “In a lot of the crew areas there were these huge posters about STD prevention.”

The crew is regularly threatened with the possibility of random breathalyzer tests (and drug testing), but even this isn’t always enforced. “There was a strict limit on our ship of no more than .04 blood alcohol content at any time,” Gavin says, “but as long as you didn’t make a fool of yourself, you wouldn’t get randomly breathalyzed, so people would break that rule all the time.”

6. For the crew, hooking up with guests on the cruise is strictly forbidden.

So you spotted a cute crew member on your ship and are thinking of chatting them up? Good luck with that. Having sexual relations with a guest is one of the fastest ways for a crew member to get fired. This is mainly to protect the cruise line from reputation-damaging accusations of abuse. Ship security keeps a close eye on crew members day and night. That doesn’t mean hookups never happen, but if a crew member is caught in the act with a guest, they’re kicked off the ship at the next port.

7. Crew passengers are almost always being watched.

“It is safe to assume if you are outside of your cabin you are probably on camera,” Gavin says. “In the event of any kind of emergency, they could pull security footage at any time.”

8. Passengers have a lot of power over how much the crew gets paid.

At the end of a journey, you might be asked to rate your experience and share any praise or complaints on a comment card. These reviews are taken very seriously and often translate directly into salaries and bonuses for workers. “For most people, their salaries are quite low and they rely on those bonuses,” Kat says. So if you leave a bad review and mention someone by name, you can be sure they’ll feel the impact on their paycheck.

“The very best thing you can do for a crew member is to write a glowing review, mentioning them specifically on your comment card,” says a former cruise worker on Reddit. “Their superior’s superiors take note of that.”

9. Some cruise workers have double lives.

“You get a lot of married people that have their own separate lives on the cruise ship,” Kat says. “I’ve worked with couples that have wives at home and a whole different relationship while they’re on the cruise ship. It’s kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.”

Gavin says one of his fellow employees lived as an out-of-the-closet gay man while on board, but was still closeted on land.

10. They have no idea what’s going on in the world.

“You stop following news and sports and pop culture,” Gavin says. “You’re really kind of isolated out there.” It can be difficult (and expensive) to find an internet connection while at sea, so many ship workers completely lose track of current events while on contract.

11. They speak in code.

Crew members have shorthand codes for everything from fires to medical emergencies, which they can announce over the loudspeaker without alarming passengers.

Code Adam: a child is missing
Code Alpha: there’s a medical emergency
Code Oscar: man overboard
Code Bravo: fire on the ship

12. The cruise ship has many mafias.

But not the kind that will make you an offer you can’t refuse. According to Sam, the crew members on her ship were split into “mafias” based on their country of origin, and each mafia dealt in specific goods. For example, the Indian mafia was in charge of getting good food for the crew parties, she says. Because Sam worked in the youth center, she was tasked with providing art supplies for crew costume parties. “That’s just one of the economies of the ship,” Sam says. “Everyone is always trying to figure out what they can get from another person.”

One former cruise ship worker says the Filipino mafia was known for getting good booze at all hours. “If you wanted anything after hours, they would get it for you! The crew bar would close around 1 or 2. If you wanted to keep drinking, but were out of booze, you would just go to the Filipino mafia and get what you needed. You paid a huge markup obviously, but it was still pretty cool!”

13. There’s a morgue on board.

Roughly 200 people die on cruise ships every year, and cruise lines need some place to store the bodies safely until they get back to shore. As a result, many ships have small morgues on board that can hold five or six bodies. “We definitely had a morgue on board,” one former ship employee told me. “Because the line was for older demographics, we had people die on the ship pretty regularly.”

14. They will leave you behind.

If you leave the ship for an on-land excursion, make sure you get back before departure time. Cruise lines pay massive fines if they overstay their port time, so chances are high the ship will leave without you if you’re running behind. “You’re on your own,” Kat says. “They won’t wait.”

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Know About Sephora

iStock/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock/RiverNorthPhotography

It’s the store that’s all about that face … and nails, and skin. Makeup mecca Sephora was first born as a perfumery in 1969. French business owner Dominique Mandonnaud wanted to remove fragrances from behind the counter and allow customers to touch, smell, and spritz on the scents. Three-plus decades later, the cosmetics juggernaut—which is currently in the news for shutting down its stores for an hour today (June 5) to host diversity and inclusivity workshops for all of its 16,000 employees—employs the same client-first philosophy. (Did you know you could get a free 15-minute makeup service at any location?) Try on these other facts.

1. BEAUTY IS (SORT OF) IN THE NAME.

The official line is that Sephora originates from the Greek word sephos (which the company claims means "beauty") and the name Zipporah—she was Moses’ exceptionally pretty wife in the Book of Exodus. Not everyone buys this explanation, however, noting that "sephos" is nothing like the ancient Greek word for "beauty" or "beautiful."

2. IT'S A TOURIST DESTINATION.

The exterior of Sephora's Paris flagship
iStock/serts

Approximately 6 million cosmetics-seekers stroll through the company’s Parisian flagship store on the Champs-Élysées every year. That’s almost as many annual visitors as the Eiffel Tower receives.

3. CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT A PRODUCT? THAT'S COOL!

Stores will take back makeup—even opened products!—within 60 days of purchase. Employees admit it’s often heartbreaking for them to have to trash barely-used makeup.

4. SHOPPERS CAN SCORE TONS OF PERKS …

Along with complimentary mini makeovers, stores offer a 45-minute session when customers spend $50, and a 90-minute consultation (it includes a makeover and personal shopping session) when they shell out $125. The company’s (free) Beauty Insider program also has its benefits. Signing up means you can attend any beauty class gratis and each dollar you spend nets you a point that you can use towards fun gifts. (In some cases, they’ll even let you go into a negative points balance to score the product.)

The company also tracks your purchases to give you recommendations for other products. (Bridget Dolan, VP of Interactive Media, told Forbes that 80 percent of their transactions “run through our loyalty program.”)  Spending $350 a year catapults you to VIB (Very Important Beauty Insider) status and gains you access to private shopping events and first dibs on new products. Shell out $1,000 annually and you get Rouge Status—that means free two-day shipping on all orders, unlimited in-store makeovers, and invites to chic store events. At one, VIBs got the chance to meet Jennifer Aniston!

5. … AND MORE SAMPLES THAN THEY KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH.

Sephora employees are told that customers shouldn’t leave without new products to try. That means you can get a trial size of just about every product they carry. (Most makeup products can be tested in-store and they’ll pour any liquid product, such as a night cream or fragrance, into a sample-size vial.) The general rule, say employees, is that customers are entitled to three samples each trip. Shopping online? Each purchase comes with a choice of three freebies. And while the store rarely has sales, you can score big at the site’s Beauty Deals section.

6. GETTING A SPECIFIC PRODUCT RECOMMENDATION CAN BE TRICKY.

Employees aren’t allowed to refer shoppers to particular brands. So instead of asking for their favorite lip shade, it’s smarter to ask which lip products perform the best. (Translation: What are other shoppers buying and not returning?)

7. NEED THE PERFECT FOUNDATION? THEY HAVE AN APP FOR THAT.

Okay, well, it’s a device. The handheld Color IQ scans the surface of your skin and then finds the scientifically precise foundation—there are 1,500 options—for your visage. To create the library, the Pantone Color Institute researched and mapped out 110 different skin tones.  

8. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

Women shop for makeup at Sephora
iStock/wdstock

Each store is divided into three distinct “worlds”: fragrance, skincare and color. In a 2008 interview with Jezebel, one employee spilled on the lingo. The sales floor is known as the “stage” (which makes everything else “backstage”), employees are called “cast members,” and managers are dubbed “directors.” As for the required all-black outfits, they’re not uniforms, they’re “costumes.”

9. EMPLOYEES REALLY ARE BEAUTY EXPERTS …

Some cast members undergo a month of intensive, all-day training at the company’s beauty school, Science of Sephora. There, according to the company’s website, they learn about “skin physiology, the history of makeup, application techniques, the science of creating fragrances, and most importantly, how to interact with Sephora’s diverse clientele.”

10. … AND THEIR MEDICINE CABINETS ARE STOCKED.

A woman stands in front of a makeup display in Sephora
iStock/arinahabich

Employees have said working at Sephora means constantly receiving new products from companies to try out. A particularly good sales day can also net a salesperson a “gratis ticket” from their manager. Plus, there’s the 20 percent employee discount that jumps up to 30 percent during the holiday season.

11. LOOKING GOOD IS A REQUIREMENT.

Part of the employee handbook: thou shall embrace eyeliner. Cast members are told to wear a certain amount of makeup while working.

12. THEY'RE WARY OF RESALE.

One cast member says they limit people from buying more than six identical items (unless they offer a good reason, such as bridal party gifts). Explains the employee, “This is to discourage people reselling our products at their own establishments.”

13. UNPOPULAR PRODUCTS USUALLY GET THE BOOT.

Stores keep lists of the products that get returned most often, and the products that don’t work are phased out over time. While it's hard to nail down an official list of frequently-returned goods, individual employees will occasionally open up about the company's most loathed and/or most misunderstood makeup.

14. SEPHORA'S APPEAL IS WIDE.

Susan Sontag at an event in Weimar, Germany in 2002
Susan Sontag
JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the L.A. Review of Books dug through the contents of a Power Mac G4 once owned by Susan Sontag and discovered the famed author was on Sephora’s Beauty Insider mailing list.

A version of this article first ran in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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