Air Traffic Controllers

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Air Traffic Controllers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic, to ensure that aircraft stay safe distances apart.

Duties of Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers typically do the following:

  • Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots
  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, using radar, computers, or visual references
  • Control all ground traffic at airports, including baggage vehicles and airport workers
  • Manage communications by transferring control of departing flights to other traffic control centers and accepting control of arriving flights
  • Provide information to pilots, such as weather updates, runway closures, and other critical information
  • Alert airport response staff, in the event of an aircraft emergency

Air traffic controllers’ primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor aircraft as they travel through the skies.

Controllers usually manage multiple aircraft at the same time and must make quick decisions to ensure the safety of the aircraft. For example, a controller might direct one aircraft on its landing approach while providing another aircraft with weather information.

The following are examples of types of air traffic controllers:

Tower controllers direct the movement of vehicles on runways and taxiways. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other traffic on the runways and in other parts of the airport. Most work from control towers, watching the traffic they control.

Approach and departure controllers ensure that aircraft traveling within an airport’s airspace maintain minimum separation for safety. They give clearances to enter controlled airspace and hand off control of aircraft to en route controllers. They use radar equipment to monitor flight paths and work in buildings known as Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs). They also provide information to pilots, such as weather conditions and other critical notices.

En route controllers monitor aircraft once they leave an airport’s airspace. They work at air route traffic control centers located throughout the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and altitude of the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches and flies through a center’s airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route. They may adjust the flight path of aircraft to avoid collisions and for safety in general.

As an airplane goes along its route, en route controllers hand the plane off to the next center, approach control, or tower along the path, as needed. En route controllers pay special attention to aircraft as they descend and get closer to the busier airspace around an airport. They turn the aircraft over to the airport’s approach controllers when the aircraft is about 20 to 50 miles from the airport.

Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. These controllers monitor traffic patterns within the entire national airspace. When they find a bottleneck, they provide instructions to other controllers, helping to prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airport and for en route controllers.

Work Environment for Air Traffic Controllers[About this section] [To Top]

Air traffic controllers held about 24,500 jobs in 2014. The majority of controllers worked for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en route centers. Many tower and approach/departure controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings located across the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Approach/departure controllers often work in semidark rooms. The aircraft they control appear as points of light moving across their radar screens, and a well-lit room would make it difficult to see the screen properly.

Controllers must work rapidly and efficiently while maintaining total concentration. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers can be taxing. As a result, controllers tend to retire earlier than most workers: those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age 50, while those with 25 years of service may retire earlier than that. Controllers are required to retire at age 56.

Air Traffic Controller Work Schedules

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. Controllers may rotate shifts among day, evening, and night, because major control facilities operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that do not operate on a 24 hour basis. Controllers at these airports have more normal work schedules.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Air Traffic Controllers near you!

To become an air traffic controller, an applicant must

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Have a bachelor’s degree, or work experience, or a combination of education and experience totaling 3 years
  • Pass medical and background checks
  • Achieve a qualifying score on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) preemployment test, which includes a biographical assessment
  • Pass the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT)
  • Complete a training course at the FAA Academy (and start it before turning 31 years of age)

The AT-SAT is an 8-hour, computer-based exam. Some of the characteristics tested include arithmetic, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visualization, problem solving, and movement detection.

Controllers also must pass a physical exam each year and a job performance exam twice per year. In addition, they must pass periodic drug screenings.

Air Traffic Controller Education

The FAA sets guidelines for schools that offer a program called the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative, or the AT-CTI program. AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that are designed to prepare students for a career in air traffic control. The curriculum is not standardized, but courses focus on subjects that are fundamental to aviation. Topics include aviation weather, airspace, clearances, reading maps, federal regulations, and related topics.

Also known as a biodata test, the biographical assessment is a personality exam that looks at a candidate’s response patterns in order to determine whether the person is a good fit for additional air traffic education. For more information, see the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) page on biodata tests. Applicants who pass both the AT-SAT and the biographical assessment are eligible to enroll in an intensive training course at the FAA Academy.

Air traffic controllers also may apply for positions through vacancy announcements made to the general public when such announcements are available. The announcements allow those with no special experience or education to apply to become air traffic controllers. These applicants generally must have completed a 4-year degree, have equivalent sequential work experience, or have some combination of the two. To improve their chances of passing the exam, applicants from the general public should try to educate themselves along the lines of the AT-CTI and AT-SAT standards.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Applicants with only a high school education will need to have years of sequential work experience or a combination of experience and education. Work experience includes work as a commercial pilot, navigator, or flight dispatcher. Other work experience that requires knowledge of aviation topics, such as weather and flight regulations, may be acceptable.

Candidates with previous air traffic control experience are automatically eligible to apply for air traffic controller positions. They do not need to take the FAA preemployment test. There can be specific job postings for those who already have experience working as an air traffic controller, such as through the military.

Air Traffic Controller Training

Most newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The length of training varies with the position and the applicant’s background. Applicants must be hired by their 31st birthday.

After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers, until they complete all requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller. Developmental controllers begin their careers by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to positions within the control room that have more responsibility.

As the developmental controllers master various duties, they earn increases in pay and advance in their training. Those with previous controller experience may take less time to become fully certified.

Trainees who fail to complete the Academy or their on-the-job training within a specified time are usually dismissed.

There are opportunities for a controller to switch from an en route position to an airport position, although the transfer requires additional Academy training. Within both of these categories, controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All air traffic controllers must hold an Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate or be appropriately qualified and supervised as stated in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 65. They must be at least 18 years old and fluent in English, and they must comply with all knowledge and skill requirements.

Important Qualities for Air Traffic Controllers

Communication skills. Air traffic controllers must be able to give clear, concise instructions, listen carefully to pilot’s requests, and respond by speaking clearly.

Concentration skills. Controllers must be able to concentrate in a room where multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with several pilots at the same time.

Decisionmaking skills. Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude or heading to avoid poor weather, the controller must respond quickly so that the plane can operate safely.

Math skills. Controllers must be able to do arithmetic accurately and quickly. They often need to compute speeds, times, and distances, and they recommend heading and altitude changes.

Organizational skills. Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights. Controllers need to be able to prioritize tasks, because they may be required to guide several pilots at the same time.

Problem-solving skills. Controllers must be able to understand complex situations, such as the impact of changing weather patterns on a plane’s flight path. Controllers must be able to review important information and provide pilots with appropriate solutions.


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Air Traffic Controller Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $122,950 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $172,590.

The salaries for development controllers increase as they complete each new training phase. According to the FAA, the starting salary for more advanced controllers who have completed on-the-job training varies with the location of the facility, the complexity of the flight paths, and other factors. A full explanation of current starting wages can be found on the FAA Aviation Careers Page.

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. Controllers may rotate shifts among day, evening, and night, because major control facilities operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that do not operate on a 24 hour basis. Controllers at these airports have more normal work schedules.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, air traffic controllers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2014.

Job Outlook for Air Traffic Controllers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to decline 9 percent from 2014 to 2024. Most employment opportunities will result from the need to replace workers who retire.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not reduced, and does not expect to reduce, the overall number of controllers. Air traffic is likely to increase, and there will be employment opportunities because the FAA will need to replace retiring controllers. However, in the long term, the NextGen satellite-based system is expected to allow individual controllers to handle more air traffic.

Air Traffic Controllers Job Prospects

Job opportunities will be best for individuals with previous experience and those who are in their early twenties and can pass the FAA’s biodata tests. Competition for air traffic controller jobs is expected to be very strong, with many people apply for a relatively small number of jobs. Those who are willing to live anywhere in the country will have an advantage.

Employment projections data for Air Traffic Controllers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Air traffic controllers 24,500 22,400 -9 -2,100


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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