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Air Traffic Controller How to become, career path, income potential

What is an air traffic controller?

Do you want to be part of the travel industry without spending all your time away from home? Do you want to help people and part an important role in the safety of others? Consider becoming an air traffic controller, a position that provides critical services to the airlines and offers incredible benefits as well. 

Air traffic controllers are responsible for coordinating airplanes both in the sky and on the ground. They are the main contact for pilots and help them monitor the air space and stay up to date on any changes due to weather or runway conditions. Air traffic controllers guide pilots during take-off and landings with instructions. 

The safety of the people on the planes and those on the ground is the number one priority for air traffic controllers at all times. Along with safety, they help to keep the traffic moving efficiently and without delays. The position uses radar, computer technology, visual references, and a collection of communication options to get planes from one destination to the next successfully. 

Different air traffic controllers handle different parts of the flight plan, so a transition also takes place. They constantly alert pilots and flight staff to changes in weather, runway closures, and other critical information during the flight. ATCs are often the first to alert emergency response staff if something happens during the flight, takeoff, or landing.

The job can be stressful and requires a lot of training and education. Air traffic controllers must be prepared to act quickly and calmly in various scenarios. The job is secure and pays well, but it requires a high level of concentration and experience. The high level of responsibility comes with many steps to finally land yourself in this role.

Qualifications and eligibility

To become an air traffic controller, applicants need post-secondary education and experience. It’s also required for all applicants to be US Citizens and fall within the acceptable age range for the position. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age and cannot be older than 30 years of age to start the training for an entry-level position.

It’s important to have strong math and problem-solving skills for the air traffic controller position. Flight plans involve a lot of coordination, especially if any changes need to occur. Adaptability is a good quality for this position. The ability to concentrate and stay focused is also important. The FAA will complete medical and security screenings for all applicants as well.

Work environment

Air traffic controllers work in a few different locations depending on their position. The rooms where the work is done are usually quiet and calm so everyone can concentrate. Control towers are used for ground control where all the planes are visible. Other controls happen at approach control facilities and route centers. 

Most of the work is done using screens, so there are long periods of sitting and concentrating on the maps. It’s important for everyone to take breaks and give their eyes a rest while stretching muscles and moving around a bit.

Typical work hours

Air traffic controllers need to work whenever airports open and flights are happening. Especially with larger airports with around-the-clock activity, there will be night and weekend shifts as 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 are switching 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.

Income

Air traffic controllers work for the federal government, so there aren’t other industries to choose from. There is some variation in income based on location. The top five highest-paying states are: 

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

Steps to become an air traffic controller

1. Make sure you meet the FAA requirements

Before you enroll in training courses, it’s important to make sure that you will meet all the FAA requirements. You must be a US citizen and be 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 will come after the training course, plus a personality assessment. Jobs can pop up all over the country, and you have to be willing to relocate to a place that has a need or job opening.

2. Get an education

Air traffic 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 around the nation 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.

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 make sure 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.

4. Complete the FAA training course

The FAA Academy is located in Oklahoma City, OK. Once you have a job offer in hand, 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 the position you’ve accepted. 

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.

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. 

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. Take courses on flight planning and flight dispatch or the fundamentals of airport operations. Each class is taught by a qualified instructor and has reviews from others who have participated. 
  • Coursera has a course on Urban Air Mobility, which is 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.

Types of air traffic controllers

Air traffic controllers help manage every minute, from when the flight door is closed to when they pull up at the gate of the destination airport. There are different types that handle each section of the flight, plus there is a management structure to oversee the controllers. 

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.

Departures and arrivals are controlled by the terminal controllers. They ensure the space between each plane for safety reasons. From the terminal radar approach control center (TRACONs), the terminal controllers 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.

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, this person will work with the pilot to make that happen. It’s important to avoid bottlenecks at any specific airport, so they may assist in rerouting a plane that needs to land to refuel. They do not often work at the airports but at a control center.

There is a hierarchy within the air traffic control space, and there are options to level up and become a manager. Everything is managed by the FAA, and the headquarters in Washington, D.C., is responsible to settle any issues and control the operations overall. 

Tips for becoming an air traffic controller

For aspiring air traffic controllers, clear education and training requirements need to be completed. Still, a few things outside the formal outline can improve your chances of becoming an air traffic controller. Try these tips:

  • 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.
  • Join networks of professionals in the industry. It will help you gain additional insight into the role and insider tips to help you prepare. The Air Traffic Control Network is a great online community you can start with.
  • 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.
  • Learn about weather patterns. Understanding how wind and weather impact the skies and air travel is important. You’ll receive some education about this during training, but you can always take it a step 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’re able to stay calm and complete the tasks in a timely manner, you’ll be practicing for the ATC job. 

Position trends

The industry is regulated and doesn’t fluctuate much. With increases in travel, there are predictions that the role will grow by about 2.5% over the next decade. There are currently about 24,000 total jobs, and openings are created when people retire or change careers or if new spots are added. 

Career path

Air traffic controllers benefit from great job security, early retirement options, and fantastic benefits and pay structures. There are few ways to move up to higher levels because there aren’t many roles. But with seniority comes better schedules and first choice at certain shifts. Most air traffic controllers can retire comfortably after 25 years, so it’s a job that provides some stability for the long term.

1. What would you do if a pilot asked you a question you don’t know the answer to?

Even with all the training and education, air traffic controllers are required to go through, there might be times when you do not have the answers. You must know the chain of command and how to work with your team in the control center. Communication is key, so understanding how to get the pilot the requested information as quickly as possible is crucial.

2. How are you in high-pressure situations?

If you have any strategies to help you remain calm, you can share them here with the interviewers. The job can have a lot of stressful moments, and it’s important that applicants can keep their cool and manage through each challenge. Talk about moments in your life when you’ve been able to remain calm and level-headed.

3. What experience do you have as an air traffic controller?

Are you a veteran in the industry looking to change your location or position? Talk about your experience in more detail than your resume is able to. Where have you worked? What kind of experience did you receive at the previous locations? This question just allows you to elaborate on the basics you have listed.

4. Have you ever had to help a pilot avoid a dangerous situation? 

Whether or not you’ve had real-world experience, you’ve definitely received training in scary situations. Weather is a common danger in the skies. Use this opportunity to talk about one of the examples you trained on that really stuck with you. Remember that “close calls” are any time planes come within five miles of each other, so it doesn’t need to be the most extreme situation. 

5. Are you comfortable working with flight plans?

Flight plans can be extremely confusing to anyone without experience and education, but you’ve had that training. Show your comfort level by talking about interesting flight paths you’ve seen and share your expertise and training in this area. Make sure to mention your adaptability because flight plans have to change for different reasons, and you should be able to flow and adjust easily.

6. If communicating with multiple pilots, how do you prioritize them?

Talk about real-life experiences if you’ve had a situation like this. If not, you can refer to the training you’ve received on how to manage multiple flights at the same time. Technology has allowed ATCs to send information to pilots without having to communicate over the radios, so you can also use your knowledge of these systems to answer the question.

7. What are the most important qualities of a great air traffic controller?

Use this question as a way to talk about your qualifications. Concentration is extremely important, and air traffic controllers must be able to remain calm in situations with high stress. Talk about your ability to stay focused and manage more than one thing at a time. Math, problem-solving, and good communication are also important, and you should also touch on those skills.

8. Why do you want to be an air traffic controller?

This is a great question to share more of your passion for this position. Tell the interviews what made you want to pursue this career. Do you love airplanes? Does technology fascinate you? Go into some detail about what made you choose this path.

Air traffic controller FAQs