What is an air traffic controller?
An air traffic controller is a specialized professional responsible for ensuring the aircraft’s safe and orderly movement within controlled airspace and on the ground at airports. These professionals play a critical role in the aviation industry, as they manage the flow of aircraft to prevent collisions, provide timely information to pilots, and respond to emergencies when they arise.
Their primary goal is to guarantee safety, but they also work to ensure flights are efficient and on time. In an industry where every second counts and safety is paramount, they serve as the eyes and ears for pilots, ensuring their safe passage through the skies.
Duties and responsibilities
An air traffic controller’s primary responsibility is to manage the aircraft’s movement. This includes providing pilots with clearance for takeoff and landing, guiding planes during flight, and ensuring they remain at safe distances from one another. They utilize radar and radio communication to simultaneously monitor and communicate with multiple aircraft.
Controllers must also be prepared to handle emergency situations, redirecting aircraft as necessary due to weather conditions, equipment malfunctions, or other unforeseen events. They also coordinate with other controllers to manage aircraft as they move between different sectors or stages of flight.
Air traffic controllers typically work in control towers at airports, terminal radar approach control facilities, and en route centers, which are facilities that handle aircraft flying at higher altitudes between airports. These work environments are known for being high-pressure, especially during peak travel times or in inclement weather conditions.
The setting is usually well-lit and climate-controlled, with controllers working in front of multiple computer screens and radar displays. Due to the need for constant communication and monitoring, their environment requires intense focus and attention to detail.
Typical work hours
Air traffic controllers must work whenever airports are open and flights are happening. Especially at larger airports with around-the-clock activity, night and weekend shifts will be part of the rotation. Some smaller airports only operate from dawn to dusk.
Shifts are never more than 10 hours long because it’s important to be able to stay focused and alert. Each shift must have at least nine hours between them to give the controller the proper time to rest. Even if schedules switch to a different time of day, they will never be back-to-back. Schedules are carefully regulated to ensure everyone has time to rest and prepare for their next shift.
How to become an air traffic controller
In order to become an air traffic controller, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:
Step 1: Make sure you meet the FAA requirements
Before you enroll in training courses, it’s important to ensure you meet all the FAA requirements. You must be a US citizen and 30 years old or under when you complete the application process. There is a medical evaluation and drug screening that everyone goes through, along with a background check and security investigation.
All applicants need to speak clear English. A few exams and a personality assessment will come after the training course. Jobs can pop up nationwide, and you have to be willing to relocate to a place with a need or job opening.
Step 2: Complete education requirements
Controllers don’t necessarily have to get a college degree, but when filling job openings, the spots go to those who have completed their education first. A handful of schools nationwide have a certified Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program (AT-CTI). Two- and four-year programs teach the basics of air traffic control. Anyone who has completed this program can skip the first five weeks of the FAA Academy program.
Step 3: Pass the qualifying tests
The FAA Air Traffic Pre-Employment test needs to be passed first. This assesses the personality and fitness of each applicant to ensure they can handle the stresses of the job. Apply to take the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam. There are practice tests you can take online. The exams cover logical reasoning, concentration, spatial orientation, and monitoring.
Once you’ve passed the exams, you can apply for jobs. A job offer is required to move on to the next step of the training course. If any part of the test is not passed, applicants can retake the exam up to three times.
Step 4: Complete the FAA training course
The FAA Academy is located in Oklahoma City, OK. Once you have a job offer, you’ll travel to Oklahoma and spend two to five months onsite completing the training. The length of time and training program depends on your background and your accepted position.
Step 5: Gain job experience
New air traffic controllers will usually begin as developmental controllers and will be responsible for communicating basic information to pilots. It’s great exposure to see how things happen and learn more from the experienced controllers around you. With more experience in the role, you’ll be able to advance to positions with more responsibility.
Step 6: Receive full certification
All air traffic controllers will need to be FAA certified. This certification comes after passing all required exams and completing your on-the-job training and experience requirements. This full process takes about two to four years.
Step 7: Continue learning about air travel
Once you are in the role, it’s important to continue learning about air travel and the changes in technology. Some controllers even go on to get their pilot’s license. There are a few credible resources available to help you continue your education.
- Udemy offers a collection of courses related to aviation. Receive an introduction to flight training or take courses on specific aircraft. Each course is taught by a qualified instructor and has reviews from others who have participated.
- Coursera has a course on Urban Air Mobility, a relatively new field. It touches on the possibility of shifting more traffic to the skies, which could really change the role of air traffic controllers in the decades to come.
How much do air traffic controllers make?
There are many variables that go into determining how much an air traffic controller makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few. They work for the federal government, so there aren’t other industries to choose from. There is some variation in income based on location.
Highest paying states
- Virginia – $152,450
- New Hampshire – $150,490
- Illinois – $145,470
- Georgia – $144,840
- California – $141,200
Types of air traffic controllers
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for air traffic controllers. This guide will provide a broad understanding of the various roles and responsibilities within the field.
Tower controllers are responsible for the runways and taxiways at the airport. They work from the air traffic control tower and observe the planes from there. This position gives clearance for takeoff and landing as well. They work closely with the terminal controllers for the appropriate handoffs.
The terminal controllers control departures and arrivals. They ensure the space between each plane for safety reasons. From the terminal radar approach control center (TRACONs), they clear planes to enter and exit the controlled airspace around an airport. They are responsible for updating weather conditions and important information about the local airport.
En route controller
The third main type is the en route controller. These positions help planes that are no longer in the controlled airspace of a specific airport. If a flight plan needs to be adjusted en route, these professionals will work with the pilot to make that happen. It’s important to avoid blockages at any specific airport, so they may assist in rerouting a plane needing land to refuel. They do not often work at the airports but at a control center.
Top skills for air traffic controllers
Being an air traffic controller requires a unique blend of technical, cognitive, and interpersonal skills. Success in this field necessitates excellent attention to detail, effective communication, mental agility, stress management, and a solid grasp of aviation regulations.
Attention to detail
Air traffic controllers manage multiple aircraft simultaneously, each at different altitudes, speeds, and trajectories. They must track each plane’s movement with meticulous precision. A slight oversight can lead to close calls or, in worst-case scenarios, catastrophic accidents. Taking care of even the smallest details ensures the safety of all flights under their jurisdiction.
Clear and concise communication forms the basis of air traffic control. Controllers need to relay instructions to pilots swiftly, ensuring no misunderstandings. Miscommunication or delays can result in potentially hazardous situations. Their language should be universally comprehensible as they deal with pilots from diverse linguistic backgrounds.
They often need to make split-second decisions based on rapidly changing conditions. They must swiftly process a large amount of information and anticipate the implications of each move they make. This mental agility ensures they can adapt to unforeseen challenges, such as sudden changes in weather or unexpected aircraft behavior.
Considering the critical nature of their role, controllers often operate under high-stress levels. They’re constantly aware that lives are in their hands. They must manage this stress effectively, maintaining a clear head and steady demeanor even in the most intense situations. Managing stress also helps them to avoid burnout and maintain optimal performance over extended periods.
Understanding of aviation regulations
Controllers need a thorough understanding of aviation rules and regulations, both local and international. This knowledge ensures that all actions align with established protocols, guaranteeing safety and minimizing the risk of legal complications. Additionally, staying updated with any changes or modifications in these regulations is crucial to ensure continued compliance.
Air traffic controller career path
Starting off, many aspiring air traffic controllers begin their journey with basic aviation knowledge. Some might even have backgrounds as pilots or in other aviation-related fields. Most countries have a national aviation authority that provides training for this role. In the U.S., for instance, the FAA oversees the training and certification process.
Entry-level controllers often start in smaller control towers or traffic control centers, managing less complex air traffic. With experience, they may progress to larger, busier airports or centers, dealing with increased traffic density and complexity. Specializations can also be pursued, such as terminal approach controllers who handle aircraft approaching and departing major airports or en route controllers who manage aircraft through large sections of airspace.
Continuous training is a staple of this profession. They must stay updated with the latest systems and software as technology advances. Similarly, periodic evaluations ensure that every controller maintains the necessary skills and aptitude for the job.
As one gains experience and seniority, they might take on training roles, guiding the next generation of air traffic controllers. Others could move into management or supervisory roles within their facility, overseeing operations or even becoming involved in policy-making and planning at higher administrative levels.
Similar job titles
Air traffic controller position trends and outlook
A career as an air traffic controller has a positive outlook. The air travel industry is expected to continue growing, leading to an increase in demand for controllers. The increasing use of technology and automation plays a growing role in assisting these professionals.
For instance, the FAA has implemented NextGen to modernize and improve the safety and efficiency of air traffic control systems. Adapting to the latest technology and working collaboratively with automated systems will be necessary for controllers.
Employment projections for air traffic controllers
The industry is regulated and doesn’t fluctuate much. With increases in travel, there are predictions that the role will grow by 1% through 2031. Openings are created when people retire or change careers or if new spots are added.
Air traffic controller career tips
Soft skills and traits for air traffic controllers
A general love of airplanes is helpful. The more technical knowledge you have about the planes themselves, the easier it can be to assist in an emergency. Improve your focus and concentration. Practice meditation and breathwork to develop methods to use in high-stress situations. Do jigsaw puzzles or crossword puzzles as well.
Commonly required skills and qualifications
Learn about weather patterns. Understanding how wind and weather impact the skies and air travel is important. You’ll learn about this during training, but you can always take it further. Practice math skills. Keep your brain sharp on quick math skills and problems by doing math games and challenges in your free time.
Gain experience in high-pressure roles. One option is a short-order cook. You’ll have tons of demands coming at you, and if you can stay calm and complete the tasks in a timely manner, you’ll be practicing for the job.
Develop a professional network
Join networks of professionals in the industry. It will help you gain additional insight into the role and insider tips to help you prepare. Here are a few that we recommend:
- Air Traffic Control Network
- National Air Traffic Controllers Association
- International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers
- Federal Aviation Administration Managers Association
Where the air traffic controller jobs are
- US Army
- US Air Force
- New Hampshire
Top job sites
What education is required to become an air traffic controller?
To become an air traffic controller, you should have either a bachelor’s or associate degree from a certified Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program. If you do not have that, you’ll need three years of experience, four years of post-secondary education, or a mixture of both.
Is the training for the air traffic controllers position paid?
The FAA pays for the initial training for entry-level air traffic controller positions. Trainees must go to the Oklahoma City training center and be compensated for their time. Additional training after that will be paid for at their local facility.
Do air traffic controllers work long hours?
Air traffic controllers have schedules that are carefully monitored. It’s not allowed for them to work longer than 10-hour shifts. In addition, each shift must be at least nine hours between the shifts.
How long does it take to become an air traffic controller?
The process of becoming an air traffic controller typically takes a few years. Applicants need to obtain the required education and pass all the exams. The FAA training takes two to five months, depending on the position, and hands-on experience is required.
What skills does an air traffic controller need?
Concentration is one of the most important skills required for air traffic controllers. Being able to remain calm in high-pressure situations will be critical as well. Other important skills for this position include strong communication skills, confident decision-making, and problem-solving skills.
How does the FAA select candidates for air traffic controller positions?
All candidates for air traffic controllers will be selected from two pools of people, one from recruits completing their education and the other from veterans in the system. Applicants must pass all required exams and complete training and hands-on experience hours to prepare.
What are the age requirements to become an air traffic controller?
Air traffic controllers must be at least 18 years of age to begin their education and training. With no previous experience, applicants must also be 30 years old or younger as well to begin the training.
Is there a high demand for air traffic controllers?
The number of air traffic controller positions is pretty small, but some growth is expected in the next decade. The openings are mainly based on people exiting the job for retirement or to switch careers.
Where is the best place to live to become an air traffic controller?
To have the best chances of getting a job as an air traffic controller, you should be flexible and open to moving anywhere. The openings are based on which airports have spots to fill, and if you’re willing to move anywhere in the country, you’ll have a much easier time getting placed once completing your training.
Do air traffic controllers need to know how to fly a plane?
Air traffic controllers are not required to know how to fly a plane, but they will be required to understand many of the different technical aspects of airplanes. Having some basic piloting knowledge can be extremely helpful, but it is not mandatory to obtain this job.
How often are new air traffic controllers hired?
The FAA hires new air traffic controllers annually, so all the training and education can be coordinated. The number of open jobs each year depends on the needs of the airports and amount of people retiring from the position.
Is the job of an air traffic controller the most stressful job in the world?
Air traffic controllers are responsible for keeping people in the air safe, but they are extremely well-trained for all scenarios. The work environment is typically quiet and calm as everyone focuses on the task. Typically, they retire earlier than other positions because staying up to date with training and completing the task each day is stressful.
How many people make it through the training?
The process of becoming an air traffic controller is difficult and requires a lot of training and exams. About 70% of applicants do not make it through the system to the end. The job requires a lot of calm concentration, and many people cannot do that. It’s a zero-margin job, so they only take the strongest candidates.