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Air Traffic Controller Career Guide

What is an air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers are the people who make sure planes fly safely. They guide planes in the sky and on the ground at airports, helping them to avoid collisions and deal with any emergencies. Their main job is to keep flights safe, but they also help to keep them on time.

Duties and responsibilities

Air traffic controllers are in charge of telling pilots when to take off and land. They also help guide planes during their flight to keep them a safe distance from each other. They use radar and talk to pilots over the radio to keep track of several planes at once. If bad weather or something unexpected happens, they must quickly make new plans for the planes. They also work with other controllers when planes move from one area to another.

Work environment

These controllers usually work in control towers at airports or special centers dealing with planes flying high and far. Their job can be really busy and needs a lot of focus, especially during busy travel times or bad weather. They work in rooms with lots of computer screens and radar displays and need to pay close attention all the time.

Typical work hours

Air traffic controllers work when airports are open, which can be day or night, including weekends. Their shifts are no longer than 10 hours to ensure they stay sharp and focused. They get at least nine hours off between shifts for rest, and their schedules are set up so they aren’t working too many hard shifts in a row.

How to become an air traffic controller

Becoming an air traffic controller is a journey that involves specific steps, training, and experience. Here’s how to get there:

Step 1: Meet the FAA requirements

First, check if you fit the FAA’s rules. You must be a U.S. citizen, under 30 years old when you apply, and pass a medical check, drug screening, and background check. You also have to speak clear English. After your training, be ready for some exams and personality assessments and be open to moving wherever there’s a job.

Step 2: Complete your education

You don’t need a college degree, but it helps. Some schools offer special Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Programs (AT-CTI). These can be two or four years long and teach the basics. If you finish this program, you can skip part of the next FAA training.

Step 3: Pass the tests

You’ll need to pass the FAA Air Traffic Pre-Employment test, which checks if you’re a good fit for the job’s stress. Then there’s the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam. You can find practice tests online. They cover things like reasoning, concentration, and monitoring skills. Pass these exams to apply for jobs; remember, you can retake them up to three times.

Step 4: Complete the FAA training course

Once you get a job offer, you’ll go to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City for 2-5 months of training. The length depends on your background and job.

Step 5: Gain experience

Start your career as a developmental controller, handling basic tasks and learning from experienced controllers. As you get better, you can move up to more complex roles.

Step 6: Get fully certified

To be an official air traffic controller, you need FAA certification. This comes after passing exams and completing on-the-job training. It usually takes 2-4 years.

Step 7: Keep learning

Stay updated with air travel and tech changes. Some controllers even get a pilot’s license. To continue learning, websites like Udemy and Coursera offer courses on aviation and new fields like Urban Air Mobility. These courses are taught by experts and are great ways to keep your knowledge fresh.

How much do air traffic controllers make?

The salary of an air traffic controller can vary based on experience and location. Since they work for the federal government, there’s less variation compared to private industries.

Highest paying states

  • Virginia – $152,450
  • New Hampshire – $150,490
  • Illinois – $145,470
  • Georgia – $144,840
  • California – $141,200

Browse air traffic controller salary data by market

Types of air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers have different roles based on where they work and what part of the flight they manage. Here are the main types:

Tower controller

Tower controllers handle everything happening on runways and taxiways at the airport. They work in the air traffic control tower and keep an eye on planes there. They give the go-ahead for planes to take off and land and coordinate with terminal controllers.

Terminal controller

Terminal controllers manage planes as they depart and arrive. They work from terminal radar approach control centers (TRACONs). They ensure safe space between each plane and handle planes entering and leaving the airport’s controlled airspace. They also update pilots on weather and local airport info.

En route controller

En route controllers take over when planes are out of a specific airport’s airspace. They usually work not at airports, but in control centers. They assist with mid-flight changes, like rerouting for fueling, and help avoid congestion at airports.

Top skills for air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers need a special set of skills to do their job well. These skills help them manage the skies safely and effectively. Here’s a look at these key skills:

  • Attention to detail: They keep track of multiple planes at once, each flying at different heights and speeds. Missing even a small detail can lead to serious problems.
  • Effective communication: They need to give clear instructions quickly to avoid misunderstandings. Pilots, may come from different parts of the world, so controllers must talk clearly and directly.
  • Mental agility: Air traffic controllers often have to make quick decisions when situations change fast. They must process lots of information quickly and think ahead to keep flights safe.
  • Stress management: The job can be really stressful since they’re responsible for people’s lives. They must keep calm and focused, even when things get intense, to avoid getting overwhelmed and continue doing their job well.
  • Understanding of aviation regulations: They need to make sure everything they do follows the rules of flying. Knowing all the laws and guidelines about flying, both local and international, is crucial.

Air traffic controller career path

The career of an air traffic controller involves starting from the basics and gradually moving up to more complex roles. Here’s how the path typically looks:

Starting with basic aviation knowledge

Many begin with a basic understanding of aviation; some might have experience as pilots or in other aviation-related jobs. In the U.S., the FAA provides the necessary training and certification.

Entry-level positions

New controllers often start in smaller control towers or traffic centers, where air traffic is less complex. They gain experience by managing air traffic and dealing with various situations.

Progression to busier airports or centers

As they get more experienced, controllers can move to larger airports or control centers with more traffic and challenges. Some may specialize in terminal approach (handling aircraft near major airports) or en route control (managing large airspace sections).

Continuous training and evaluations

Controllers need ongoing training to keep up with new technology and systems. They undergo evaluations to make sure they still have the skills and aptitude for their demanding job.

Advancement opportunities

Experienced controllers might start training new controllers. Some move into overseeing operations at their facility or even get involved in higher-level planning and policy-making.

The future looks bright for air traffic controllers. Here’s what’s expected in the coming years:

  • Growing air travel industry: As more people fly, there’s a greater need for air traffic controllers to keep skies safe.
  • Technology and automation’s role: Programs like the FAA’s NextGen are updating air traffic control to make it safer and more efficient.

Employment projections for air traffic controllers

Air traffic control is a regulated field, so employment doesn’t see big ups and downs. There’s an expected growth of about 1% through 2031, which, while modest, is significant in this stable field. New positions are mostly due to retirements, career changes, or added roles as the industry grows.

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

Top companies

  • US Army
  • US Air Force
  • Amazon
  • Target
  • FAA
  • UPS

Top states

  • Delaware
  • Connecticut
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Careerbuilder
  • Monster


What education is required 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 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?

They 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 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. 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 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?

They 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 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, 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?

While not required to know how to fly a plane, they will need 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 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 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.