How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
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- Many air traffic controllers have an associate degree in air traffic management.
- The federal government hires air traffic trainees during a short window each year.
- After landing a job, trainees complete months of special academy training.
- New controllers continue training on the job to gain certification within three years.
On any given day, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handles over 45,000 flights, carrying more than 2.9 million passengers. While pilots do the flying, air traffic controllers, also called air traffic control specialists, guide and instruct pilots. They watch out for weather and traffic congestion and reroute planes if necessary.
Some air traffic controllers make six figures. The median air traffic controller salary in 2021 was $129,750, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, becoming an air traffic controller takes years of commitment.
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Ready to Start Your Journey?
This article lists the steps to becoming an air traffic controller and answers questions about the job.
Step-by-Step to Becoming an Air Traffic Controller
The path to becoming an air traffic controller is unique and takes several levels of training. Here's where to get started.
- Earn a GED or High School Diploma: Most air traffic control degree programs and the armed services require you to have a high school or GED diploma to enroll or enlist.
- Complete Pre-Employment Education and Experience Requirements: In addition to meeting certain medical and age requirements, you must complete pre-training. The FAA provides different ways to complete your pre-training. You may:
- Work for at least three years in progressively responsible roles
- Earn a four-year degree
- Combine education and work experience for a total of three years (E.g., Complete a two-year degree and military service)
- Apply for a Job During a Hiring Window: Apply for an air traffic controller job through USAJOBS. Air traffic controller jobs typically accept applicants for just a few days, so it's a good idea to sign up for USAJOBS alerts.
- Attend the FAA Academy: The FAA academy trains air traffic controllers through classroom learning and simulations. Trainees may complete coursework in 2-5 months. It is located in Oklahoma City.
- Work on Assignment as a Developmental Controller: Sort of like an apprentice, developmental controllers work under supervision while training for another 1.5-3 years.
- Become Certified: After completing all of the necessary training components to work in a tower or radar facility, you can become an FAA-certified professional controller (CPC).
The above are minimum requirements. To strengthen your application, consider completing a degree at an Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) school. These programs teach students air traffic management and other aviation subjects. They are located at several colleges throughout the country. Graduates may receive a letter of recommendation to help them land a job.
You can also gain air traffic control experience in the military. Veterans may earn credits toward an air traffic degree.
In an interview on the FAA's Up in the Air podcast, academy director Jim Doskow said that students with higher course scores may get to choose their site assignment first, whereas students with lower scores choose last. How's that for an incentive to study?
What Is an Air Traffic Controller?
Air traffic controllers monitor flight paths. They give pilots instructions and information about weather and other air traffic from pre-departure to arrival.
What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?
Air traffic controllers prioritize safety. They guide pilots to make sure they avoid collisions and dangerous weather. These professionals also try to prevent congestion around airports. They help pilots and passengers take off and arrive on time.
Air traffic controller jobs require communication, concentration, and constant troubleshooting. They practice organization and attentiveness, frequently monitoring several flights at once. Even under great stress, these pros must make fast, effective decisions.
Air Traffic Controller Responsibilities
On any given shift, an air traffic controller may be responsible for:
- Instructing pilots during takeoff and landing
- Directing other airport workers, including baggage and maintenance personnel
- Handing off flight paths to colleagues stationed throughout the country
- Warning pilots about weather conditions, runway closures, and other issues
- Detecting and reporting emergencies during a flight
Types of Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic controllers have different roles, categorized generally by how close to an airport they work. Types of air traffic controllers include:
- Tower Controllers or Operators: These professionals work in towers at the airport. They oversee the runways and air traffic within about 30 miles of an airport.
- Approach and Departure or Radar Approach Controllers: Further out, about 20-50 miles from the airport, these controllers guide pilots approaching and departing from the vicinity. They hand off traffic between tower and en route control specialists.
- En Route Controllers: These professionals work throughout the country to monitor flights far away from any airport.
Sometimes, there may be other roles, such as control specialists who work between tower and radar approach controllers or supervisors who oversee employees at a tower.
Requirements for Becoming an Air Traffic Controller
In addition to completing education or work experience, aspiring air traffic controllers must meet certain requirements before the FAA accepts them as job candidates and academy students.
To meet the FAA's requirements to become an air traffic controller, you must:
Be a U.S. citizen
Be 30 years old or younger
Pass a medical examination — and continue to pass it annually once you're hired
Pass a security investigation
Pass the FAA's pre-employment test
Speak English clearly so colleagues using communications equipment can understand you
Be up for relocating to any facility the FAA may need to staff
Work for three years in progressively responsible roles, obtain a bachelor's degree, or have some combination of work and postsecondary education equaling three years
Certification Process for Air Traffic Controllers
Once you complete your academy training, you will be assigned to work at a tower or radar facility somewhere in the country. There, you will continue training, which the FAA monitors closely. After completing all of the necessary training components to work in a tower or a radar facility, you qualify to become a CPC. The FAA expects trainees to complete all necessary training in 1.5-3 years.
Air Traffic Controller's Salary and Job Demand
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers in 2021 was $129,750, according to the BLS. Your exact salary as an air traffic controller may depend on your experience, where in the country you work, and the complexity of the air traffic you manage. Air traffic controllers also may receive federal benefits, including insurance and retirement plans.
Even though more people are flying these days, new satellite-based technology may enable control specialists to cover more traffic, lowering the demand for these jobs. The BLS projects that employment for air traffic controllers will grow 4% from 2020 to 2030. That's just half the projected growth rate for all applications, which is around 8%.
Throughout your career, you may continue training in different types of air traffic management — for example, tower versus en-route control — to expand your experience and move to new cities.
Additionally, the FAA offers employees mentoring and leadership development programs to help them grow into senior management positions in the agency.
The law requires air traffic controllers to retire at age 56, and some may retire earlier than that. Some retired air traffic controllers become instructors or work as supervisors.
Top 5 Paid States
Below, find the top five highest-paying states for air traffic controllers, according to the BLS.
Average Air Traffic Controller Salary (May 2021)
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Air Traffic Controller
How much does an air traffic controller make?
How long does it take to become an air traffic controller?
It may take 4.5-7.5 years to become an air traffic controller.
You must spend 3-4 years completing pre-employment qualifications. Then, if you land a job right away, you need to spend 2-4 months in FAA training and then another 1.5-3 years in on-the-job training before the FAA certifies you.
How much does air traffic controller school cost?
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, most air traffic control and aviation management degree programs cost between $7,000 and $20,000 a year. These include two- and four-year degree programs.
Once you're hired, you do not pay for the required training at the FAA Academy. The Academy will pay for or reimburse your lodging and meal expenses up to a certain amount while you're enrolled in courses.