8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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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.

9 Secrets of Fine Art Auctioneers

Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie’s LTD. 2019

If a fine art auction can be compared to a well-coordinated circus, then the auctioneer is its ringmaster. At any given auction—which may include hundreds of people in the room and hundreds more watching online—the auctioneer is center stage, directing the audience's attention to lots big and small, generating excitement, and making sure the bidding runs smoothly. Auctioneers manage "all this while having charisma and a sense of engagement and great energy,” says Tash Perrin, an auctioneer who also holds a couple of senior management titles at Christie’s auction house. To find out what it takes to perform in such a fast-paced setting (and whether they always talk the way you see in the movies), we spoke with three New York City-based auctioneers who work for some of the world’s largest auction houses: Christie’s, Phillips, and Bonhams.

1. Auctioneering is mostly a side gig.

Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Bonhams

At the big auction houses, practically no one is hired to work solely as an auctioneer. As Perrin explains, “Nobody here at Christie’s is an auctioneer full-time. All of us have full-time jobs and then we do the auctioneering as a side gig.” Some auctioneers manage a particular department within an auction house, while others work in a variety of roles that may take advantage of their specialty in a particular field, whether that’s Chinese ceramics, Islamic art, or jewelry.

As a specialist in postwar and contemporary art with Bonhams, for example, Jacqueline Towers-Perkins sources all of the artworks for auction, researches their origin, and makes sure they’re authentic (and not some knock-off). Finally, as an auctioneer, she gets to find a new home for them. “When it comes to selling [an artwork], that is sort of the icing on the cake,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. Auctioneers need to be licensed in some states.

More than half of all U.S. states stipulate that individual auctioneers must get a license before selling items at public auctions. New York state does not have such a law, but leaves the decision up to individual municipalities. New York City—the location of many big-name auction houses—does mandate it. Would-be auctioneers must go to the Department of Consumer Affairs—“the same place that hot dog vendors get their license,” Perrin says.

3. Not all auctioneers speak quickly.

If you’ve been picturing an auctioneer who talks a mile a minute, you’re probably thinking of cattle auctioneers, who rattle off increments in an almost meditative style called "chanting." A few other types of auctioneers talk this way, but you won’t hear it at any of the major art and antiquities auction houses, which also sell across categories including jewelry, handbags, watches, wine and spirits, books and manuscripts, and more.

That’s because an auctioneer’s cadence largely depends on what they’re selling. Speed is especially important for cattle auctioneers because they often have more lots (a.k.a. individual cattle) to sell than the typical art auctioneer. (They also talk that way to "hypnotize" bidders, according to Slate.) However, when it comes to prized artworks and rare artifacts that rack up millions of dollars at auction, an auctioneer’s goal is slightly different: to generate excitement and build suspense. Sometimes, they might even slow down and allow a moment of silence to fill the room before speeding up again. “A really important element to being a good auctioneer is your ability to speak silence,” Perrin says. That means allowing for pauses when necessary—such as when a potential buyer might be thinking about a bid. It’s also about creating a welcoming atmosphere for bidders. “We want this to be a really great environment ... We don’t want to rush people through it or make it intimidating," Towers-Perkins adds.

4. Auctioneers sometimes stick out their tongues and recite Humpty Dumpty as a vocal warm-up.

Because auctioneers are talking non-stop for several hours at a time, the vocal warm-ups they do before an auction can get pretty ... creative. “Reciting Humpty Dumpty with your tongue out is definitely something we would encourage,” says Perrin, who also coaches auctioneers-in-training. In the above video from The New York Times, Christie’s former head of auctioneering, Hugh Edmeades, can be seen reciting this nursery rhyme to loosen up his facial muscles and warm up his voice. Perrin says some auctioneers might also recite their increments (we’ll get to those later) in the shower before coming to work, while others might use breathing and vocal techniques that are similar to the ones employed by actors and singers.

5. The auctioneer’s book is their bible.

Auctioneers can glean everything they need to know about a sale from something called the “auctioneer’s book”—although at some auction houses, it's a digital file on a laptop rather than a physical book. The book contains the lot number (the identifying number of the item or group of items up for sale), the item’s description, and the amount of money it’s expected to go for. It also has one crucial piece of information that neither the bidder nor the general public gets to see: The reserve price. This is the amount of money the owner of the lot will—or will not—sell it for.

6. An auctioneer's ability to multitask is crucial.

Auction staff talk to bidders on the phone
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Juggling multiple tasks at once is a skill auctioneers must learn to master. In addition to remaining aware of the reserve price, auctioneers must also check their book for any absentee bids that have been placed prior to the sale. Bids are also coming in over the phone and online, and those bidders must be given the same attention and opportunity that bidders in the room are afforded. Throughout all this, auctioneers have to be engaging and charismatic. “If it looks like you’re very methodical and have a sense of just trying to get the job done, you’re not engaging the audience,” Perrin says.

While auctioneers are on the hook for most of the sales proceedings, they do get some help from a bid clerk. This person stands next to the auctioneer and surveys the room—including the phone bank, where staff talk to potential buyers over the phone and hold up a paddle whenever a bid comes through—to catch bids the auctioneer might not have seen. This extra assistance is especially helpful when there are 700 or so bidders in one space. “They play an incredibly important role, and I often refer to them as my best man up there,” Perrin says.

7. There’s a lot of math involved in auctioneering.

Auctioneers can only use certain increments, which means they’re limited in the exact price they can offer to bidders. “It’s very set,” Towers-Perkins says. “The numbers go up in tens at the beginning, then in twenties, then in fifties, then in hundreds.” (The precise numbers can vary by house.) This gets all the more confusing when absentee bids are factored into the equation. Auctioneers must ensure they’re referring to the exact amount declared in an absentee bid, which means they must think ahead and do a bit of quick math to figure out which number they should call out. Perrin calls this skill “numerical dexterity,” but there’s another term for it too. When everything goes well and auctioneers offer the correct increments, it’s called “landing on the right foot.” (And when things go wrong, it's called, naturally, landing on the wrong foot.)

8. Auctioneers can tell the difference between an involuntary nod and a bid.

Auctioneer Sarah Krueger
Auctioneer Sarah Krueger conducts a sale for Phillips.
Phillips

Sometimes, a nod is just a nod. Other times, it’s a bid. Auctioneers are trained to observe bidders’ body behavior and know the difference. Customers usually raise their paddles to place a bid, but some might prefer to remain discreet. Sarah Krueger, an auctioneer and head of the photographs department at the New York City branch of Phillips, said auctioneers get to know the bidding styles of frequent clients: “A nod or a slight move might indicate a bid from one person, but for another they might just be waving at a friend across the room.” Perrin says one client in England bids by raising his eyebrows, while other bidders wink to raise the stakes. Usually, an auctioneer can judge whether or not a bid is intentional by paying attention to the bidder’s level of engagement—for instance, if they’re looking at the auctioneer or still have a paddle in their hand, they’re probably interested.

9. They take their gavels seriously.

A gavel on a table
Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

Krueger has her own personal collection of six gavels: Three of them she uses in auctions, while the other three are more like collector’s items. Each auctioneer has their own preferences in terms of the style of gavel they use. “For my purposes, what I’m looking for in a gavel is something that fits comfortably in my hand and isn’t too heavy,” she says. “You also want to test it out against your sounding block and make sure that it’s giving you the right sound.” After all, auctioneers say that the moment the hammer falls, signifying the end of a sale, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. “The sound the gavel makes on the rostrum is incredibly satisfying—particularly on the very first lot you ever take and the most expensive lot you’ve ever sold,” Perrin says. “That’s extremely gratifying.”

11 Secrets of Opticians

iStock.com/Emir Memedovski
iStock.com/Emir Memedovski

Whether they need glasses or not, most people understand what an optometrist does. The same doesn’t always apply for the optometrist’s in-office counterpart, the optician. Even people who have been wearing glasses or contacts for most of their lives might not know exactly what these eyecare professionals do. Here are 11 secrets about being an optician, some of which might change the way you see your glasses forever.

1. Opticians aren't salespeople, and they don’t get commission.

When you go to the eye doctor, you don’t just sit in the chair, read some letters off a chart at the far end of the room, and then walk out with a pair of glasses. After the optometrist determines your prescription, you’re typically directed to the office’s optician, who will help you pick out your next pair of glasses or contacts. Think of them as the pharmacist of the eyewear world: The doctor determines your generic prescription, but the optician is the one who fills it for you.

“I am the person that makes sure we get a frame that fits you, that is going to work for your prescription, and is going to last you,” explains Maayan Shuval, an optician at Eyedentity, an eye care practice in Kirkland, Washington.

And despite what some people seem to think, opticians aren't just there to direct you to the most expensive pair of frames in the office, or to up-sell you on the priciest add-ons. "People always assume we make commission and we want them to buy the most expensive thing," Shuval says. "I’ve never made commission."

Still, many customers think that opticians are just glorified salespeople out for more money. “The misperception comes from the idea that glasses are glasses or contacts are contacts, and they’re all the same,” says Steve Alexander, an optician in Arlington Heights, Illinois who worked as a practicing optician for 13 years and is currently a consultant with The Growth Cooperative, a national consulting firm for eye care providers.

But the upgrades that opticians offer can make a real difference for your vision, whether it’s transition lenses, anti-glare coatings, or another high-tech feature. “I think people think that the upgrades in lenses are kind of a scam, and they’re really not,” Alexander says. “The coatings make a significant difference in the physics of light and how light actually interacts with your glasses.”

2. Only some states require opticians to be licensed.

The requirements for becoming an optician vary significantly depending on where you live, and fewer than half the states require opticians to be licensed. Alexander, for instance, works in Illinois, where he’s not required to have a license, while Shuval works in Washington state, which does require licensure—meaning she had to do an apprenticeship and take a state exam in order to legally practice, and she now has to spend a certain number of hours each year doing continuing education classes to keep her license.

Even within states that require licenses, there are a lot of differences between the certification processes. Some states require opticians to be certified by the American Board of Opticianry and National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE), a national credential that requires continuing education and expires every three years. Other states have their own certification processes with different requirements for continuing education hours, expiration periods, and more. That means that a practicing optician in one state can’t necessarily practice in another state without going through the whole certification process anew. (Some of the national optical chains require their opticians to be licensed regardless of the state they're in—Warby Parker, for instance, requires its opticians to obtain the American Board of Opticianry’s certification.)

Becoming licensed is typically a lot of work (not to mention some money) but it does help opticians keep up with the current research on eyes and eyewear. “[One] class that I attended was a two-hour course about vision therapy, and how a lot of what we’ve known about and practiced with regards to amblyopia—which people call a 'lazy eye'—is entirely incorrect,” Shuval explains. The class had a profound impact on her practice. “My whole world shifted upside down over the course of this two-hour class. [Amblyopia] is super reversible if you have the right information. That’s amazing.”

3. Many patients have unrealistic expectations of opticians …

Patients aren’t always realistic about how much eyewear will cost and what is available. One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to Shuval, is assuming that all glasses and contacts are the same, when in fact, lens types, coatings, and other adjustments make a huge difference in how you see. They often suffer from sticker shock, too.

“I’m here to help my patients see and look better,” Shuval says, but customers don’t always appreciate how big of a purchase new glasses can be. “It can be a really angry conversation because people are like, ‘Why are you charging $600 for glasses?’” Aside from the fact that you’re probably going to wear those glasses all day, every day for a year or more, that price seems a lot more reasonable when you remember that every pair of glasses is a custom, FDA-regulated medical device. “What people really don’t realize about eyewear is 100 percent of glasses made are custom-made,” she adds. “No two pairs that I make are alike.”

Furthermore, as patients get older and start to need bifocals, they often don’t understand the limits of modern optical technology. “People just want to put on glasses and say, ‘Oh my god, I can see,’” Shuval describes. But adjusting to a new pair of glasses can take weeks. Your brain gets used to compensating for certain vision deficiencies, and you have to get used to a new prescription. And in some cases, lens technology still isn’t good enough to replicate the natural abilities of the eye. When it comes to technology like progressive bifocals, patients actually need to be taught how to use the lens, for instance.

4. … Especially when it comes to contact lenses.

Alexander says many patients get upset when they’re told that their prescription for contact lenses will expire after a year, and that they’ll have to come back into the office in order to get a new one. “What patients don’t consider is that you are putting a medical device into your face,” he says, “and if they’re not properly managed it can lead to serious complications—it can lead to infections and ulcers and corneal issues.” Patients don’t necessarily understand that they're paying for vital preventative care: “It’s a medical device in an incredibly sensitive part of your body," he explains.

5. Opticians are obsessive about fit.

Adam Bentley, an Optical Field Leader at Warby Parker based in San Francisco, says his biggest pet peeve as an optician doesn’t occur in the office—it’s when he sees crooked eyewear around town. “I’ve often found myself looking at a crooked pair of glasses on the subway [and] wishing I could walk up and fix them,” he admits.

6. Opticians often choose which frames their stores carry.

In private practices, the optician might be responsible for more than just showing customers the latest glasses. They might also be the one determining what frames the shop offers. “I personally am the frame buyer for my store,” Shuval explains. That means she can answer a whole host of questions for customers beyond the realm of fit or function, including queries about where the glasses are made. That has become increasingly important as more and more customers become aware of the eyewear monopolies. Luxottica, an Italian frame company, makes an estimated 25 percent of the frames in the world, while Essilor, a lens company based in France, makes an estimated 45 percent of prescription lenses. Many blame the corporations' vast reach for driving the price of glasses up to artificially high rates. (The two corporations also merged in 2018.)

But Shuval says that buying glasses from shops like Warby Parker isn't the only way to escape the EssilorLuxottica monopoly. “I seek out the small companies [that make frames] and I can tell you about all the designers and factories where they’re made, because that’s important to me,” she says.

7. Many private opticians aren’t fans of online retailers.

In fact, despite the accessible price points, neither Shuval nor Alexander expressed much enthusiasm for the idea of buying glasses online. The main issue is that being fitted for glasses isn’t only a matter of finding a frame that won’t fall off your face. Online shopping can offer very inexpensive options, as Shuval explains, and “sometimes they’re good options for people, but it’s [about] making sure that custom medical device that’s sitting on your face all day is actually going to be helpful.”

One of the roadblocks patients run into while shopping for glasses online has to do with measuring the position of their pupils. Opticians measure your eyes to make sure that the centers of your lenses are positioned exactly over your pupils. While patients can try their best to measure this at home on their own, it’s not the same as having it measured in an office by a professional.

Almost any online glasses shop is going to ask for your pupillary distance (PD), which is the horizontal distance between your eyes. You might be asked for your binocular pupillary distance, which is the distance between your two pupils, or the monocular distance, which is the distance from the bridge of your nose to your pupil—expressed in two different measurements, since faces aren’t always symmetrical. However, those measurements aren't everything. “In order to make a really good lens you need more information than that,” Shuval says.

In fact, there is a secondary measurement that most online shops don’t ask about—the vertical measurement, known as the ocular center height. “[The] ocular center is a top-to-bottom measurement for the patient, and that can’t be measured until you have the frame,” Alexander explains. “If you don’t know where their eye sits in a given frame before the lenses are made, then while the optical center might be aligned left to right, it’s not going to be aligned top to bottom.”

If your lenses aren’t positioned over your pupils correctly, you won’t see as well, and the eye strain can cause headaches and other discomfort. Lenses that don’t fit you right might make you feel nauseous, affect your depth perception, and more.

While you can get your ocular center measured by an optician at a Warby Parker retail store, buying glasses from Warby Parker’s online shop doesn’t require ocular height, just pupillary distance. In response to questions about this policy, Warby Parker provided the following statement: “A common misconception is that this measurement is required for all orders, when in fact it’s not … For online orders, we’ve developed tools and proprietary technology that allows us to help predict this type of measurement based on previous customer data. We also have in-house opticians to help online customers in the event that customers need extra assistance.”

8. Opticians love to answer questions …

“I love when patients come and ask me, 'Is there any cool new technology we should be looking at?’” Shuval says. Opticians are experts in their field and spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the latest technological updates in eyewear. Most love to share that knowledge. “We like getting to explain stuff,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important for people to be educated consumers.”

9. … Except for one particular question.

Glasses are so personalized and there are so many possible options that it’s impossible to quote someone a single price tag, but that doesn’t stop patients from asking. “One of the more common questions that I used to get as an optician [that used to] drive me crazy,” Alexander explains, “would be, ‘How much are glasses?’ And it would be through gritted teeth that I answered, ‘Well, it depends on the frame that you choose and the lenses you need.’ But it’s a question that never made any sense to me because you’d never call up a car dealer and say, ‘How much is a car?’”

10. They'll gladly fix your glasses ... if you're a patient.

If you buy your glasses from an optician, adjusting and servicing those frames (for example, if they need to be straightened or have a screw replaced) is usually part of the initial cost. However, if you’re not a patient or bought your glasses online, you shouldn’t expect to get free repairs from the office.

“When an office charges for an optician's time or replacement of parts patients will get up in arms about it,” Alexander says. “If it’s somebody who wasn’t a customer of ours and has not taken care of their eyewear, to come in and get upset at being charged for a service we’re providing is always very frustrating for me.” That said, he says he would never charge one of his longtime patients for repairs.

But if you do need to get your glasses serviced and you're not already a patient, any charges will likely be minimal—at most, he says, you’ll probably need to pay $10 or so. So don’t be afraid to walk into your local optician’s office and ask. Just don’t get too snarky when they ask you to break out your wallet.

11. They don’t always follow their own advice.

“I clean my glasses with my shirt or whatever is lying around,” one anonymous optician tells Mental Floss. “It's a big optician ‘no, no.’” If you really want to take care of your specs, you’ll clean them with a microfiber cloth and lens spray instead, and always keep them safely tucked away in their case when you aren’t wearing them.

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