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.

7 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roadies

Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus
Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

Although the word roadie may conjure up images of non-stop partying with rock stars, the reality is that most work unglamorous, physically and emotionally demanding jobs. They lug the gear, set up the instruments, manage the stage, run the sound, sell the merch, drive the bus, and generally do whatever it takes to make concerts possible. Mental Floss talked to a few roadies (who probably wish we'd stop calling them that—see below) to get the inside scoop.

1. Roadie is an outdated term.

Some roadies who worked in the 1960s through the 1980s later wrote books bragging about their sexual conquests, wild partying, and drug use while on the road. Although that lifestyle is not completely obsolete—genres such as metal, rap, and hip hop supposedly see more illegal activity than indie, pop, folk, and alternative—most roadies don’t refer to themselves as such.

Morgan Paros, a violinist and singer based in Los Angeles, says that the generic term roadie seems slightly derogatory now. Instead, it’s better to use terms that more specifically describe individual duties. “Anyone on a tour is generally working very hard to fulfill their role of tour manager, front of house (sound engineer), light tech, stage manager, instrument tech, or merchandise manager,” Paros says. “These individuals make everything possible for the performers every night.”

2. Roadies work insanely long hours.

Most roadies work 16- to 20-hour days. Waking up early and going to sleep late is part of the job description, as Meg MacRae, a production coordinator who’s been on the road with Bon Jovi and the Eagles, attests. A typical day for her starts with a 6 a.m. bus pickup, after which she sets up a temporary production office at the venue. After a long day of problem-solving, booking flights and hotels, and making sure the crew is taken care of, she ends her day at 1:30 or 2 a.m.

3. Roadies get used to roughing it.

Unless they’re working for an A+ list performer, most roadies are not living the high life, sleeping in luxury hotel suites and flying on private jets. Being on the road can be hard work. Depending on the band’s budget level, the road crew may sleep on the floor of a shared hotel room, or sit in a crowded Ford Econoline or Chevrolet Express van for hours.

Tour conditions offer minimal privacy and maximum mess. “You wouldn’t believe how insanely messy a van can get after a 6-week tour of the country,” says Michael Lerner of Telekinesis.

David, a front-of-house sound engineer based in New York, also describes the dirty working conditions in many venues. “Consider how grimy some music venues look. The dusty mixing board in the back coated in spilled beer, the germs of hundreds of singers talking/spitting/shouting into the same microphones night after night, and the questionable odors of green rooms inhabited by people who spend a solid portion of their days packed into a van … this is your office. Good luck not getting sick.”

4. Roadies usually have good reasons for putting up with it all.

So why do roadies subject themselves to the long hours and less-than-glamorous conditions? Many say they love music so much that they can’t imagine working in any other field. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have a job in music,” tour manager and sound engineer William Pepple writes. Some roadies also get into it because they love traveling all over the world, seeing new cities, and meeting new people.

5. Maintaining relationships at home is a big challenge for roadies.

Being a roadie is a lifestyle rather than just a job. Because they travel so frequently for work, roadies often struggle to maintain relationships with loved ones. Technology such as FaceTime and Skype has made keeping up with family, friends, and significant others easier, but it can still be a challenge to find privacy to make phone calls. Roadies who travel on buses have a little more privacy and time to connect with loved ones back home, since bus tours often give them the freedom of waking up in the city where the band’s next show is, while road crew on van tours spend the majority of the daytime driving to the next show.

6. They probably have at least one horror story from the road.

Whether it’s an unscrupulous promoter cheating the band out of their earnings, a bus overheating, a van breaking down, or driving through dangerous winter storms, roadies probably have at least one horror story. Most awful promoters or venues, though, are usually due to simple misunderstandings. “Most bad days are due to either bad communication or a lack of understanding that most touring people just want simple comforts: a clean shower, clean towels, a safe place to put their stuff, laundry machines, and good food,” says Mahina Gannet, who’s worked as a tour manager and production coordinator for bands such as The Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, and Neko Case.

7. Good roadies are there to work, not just hang out with the band.

Achieving a balance between being professional and having fun is harder on tours because “you are working, living and traveling with your co-workers,” Gannet adds. “I’m there to get a job done, and when it’s done, I love to hang out. A lot of tour managers I’ve seen definitely can go to either extreme (some actually thinking they are a member of the band, some so distant the band can’t talk to them), but it’s like everything else in life. It’s about finding your own personal balance.”

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

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

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