Step-by-step guide to become an air traffic controller

Last updated: May 25, 2024
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Step-by-step guide to become an air traffic controller
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A job as an air traffic controller can be extremely lucrative, with many people in this profession earning six figures per year.

But getting the job requires a lot of hard work, training, and dedication. Not only will you need education, but you’ll also have to complete FAA training to become qualified for the job.

This article will discuss what air traffic controllers do, how much they earn on average based on several factors, and the top skills they need. It’ll also give you a step-by-step guide to becoming an air traffic controller.

What is an air traffic controller?

An air traffic controller is an individual who watches and directs the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air.

Despite limited employment growth, around 2,400 job openings for air traffic controllers are projected yearly. Most of these job openings exist due to the need to replace workers when they retire or if they transfer to different positions.

There are generally two types of air traffic controllers:

  • Tower and terminal controllers: These controllers work in a tower and monitor all planes in terminal space. They help maintain a steady flow of traffic from and into the airport. They also update pilots on important information, such as weather changes, and ensure safe distances between aircraft on the ground.

  • En route controllers: En route controllers use surveillance equipment to monitor aircraft during their flight. They need to ensure a safe distance between planes in the sky and provide pilots with traffic and weather information.

Though the jobs of tower and en route controllers differ, both are essential in ensuring the safety of passengers and employees. Thus, these positions come with high levels of responsibility.

Air traffic controller responsibilities and work hours

We’ve already covered some of the responsibilities of both tower and en route controllers. Here are some additional tasks that air traffic controllers need to perform daily.

  • In addition to weather updates, controllers also need to provide pilots with other information. This includes the order of take-off and landing, runway closures, when “traffic” is approaching an aircraft, and more.

  • Notify airport personnel when there are aircraft emergencies so that the correct procedures can be followed.

  • Control ground traffic, aside from planes, including baggage vehicles, maintenance employees, loaders, and more.

Most air traffic controllers work full-time. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ultimately determines the hours that air traffic controllers work.

This means they may sometimes work for 10 hours straight, including the required breaks. They must also have nine hours of rest between shifts.

Many major airports need to run their control towers 24 hours. Therefore, controllers may be required to work day shifts, night shifts, over the weekends, and sometimes during the holidays.

Air traffic controllers at smaller airports that don’t operate around the clock may work standard business hours.

How much do air traffic controllers earn?

On average, air traffic controllers earn close to $130,000 per year. This makes it one of the highest-paying associate degree jobs.

However, air traffic controllers may earn higher or lower salaries based on their levels of training, experience, and location.

Levels of training

The salaries of air traffic controllers increase as they complete levels of training. More advanced controllers who have completed their on-the-job training are often paid higher. Their exact salaries vary based on the complexity of flight paths, type of facility, and other factors.

Experience

Those who are experienced (with 20+ years of experience) can earn up to 32% more than average. On the other hand, those who are entry-level and have less than a year of experience can earn 15% less.

Location

Air traffic controllers who work in specific cities also earn more than others.

For example, those who work in Los Angeles earn around 25% more than average, and those who live in New York earn 10% more.

However, those who live in San Diego can earn up to 33% less than average, while those who live in Dallas can earn 32% less.

Other employee benefits

In addition to a competitive salary, air traffic controllers also get several employee benefits. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Talent development: As an FAA employee, you’ll have access to continuous learning opportunities to grow professionally. This includes on-site training, web-based courses, leadership development, and more.

  • Retirement: Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) and a FERS Retirement Pension Plan.

  • Health and welfare: Federal Employee Health Benefits, life insurance, dental and vision benefits, etc.

  • Paid time off: A minimum of 23 days paid time off every year. This includes 10 vacation days and 13–26 additional days accrued, depending on the length of service. You also get 13 paid sick leave days per year.

Other benefits include a good work-life balance, transportation subsidies, on-site daycare facilities, and more.

Learn more about the different types of employee benefits for full-and part-time employees.

What qualities do you need to be a good air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers need the following qualities to be good at their jobs.

  • Decision-making abilities: They need to be able to make decisions quickly. For example, when a pilot requests an altitude change to avoid poor weather, they need to respond quickly to ensure the aircraft’s safety.

  • Math skills: They should be able to calculate speed, distance, and time and recommend changes in altitude or heading.

  • Communication skills: They must give straightforward, concise instructions that other employees can follow. They should also be able to listen to pilots and respond to them in clear English.

  • Stay calm under pressure: When a problem arises, air traffic controllers must be able to stay calm and handle the situation in the best possible way without causing panic.

  • Concentration: To maintain a steady flow of traffic in and out of the airport and ensure safety at all times, air traffic controllers need high concentration levels.

  • Teamwork: They need to be able to support, manage, and cooperate with others in their area of responsibility.

How to become an air traffic controller

Here are the steps you can follow to become an air traffic controller.

1. Pursue a degree

Air traffic controllers generally need an associate's or bachelor’s degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program.

An associate’s degree will take you two years to complete, whereas a bachelor’s degree can take 3–4 years.

Though a degree isn’t absolutely necessary, a 2–4 year program will prepare you for an air traffic controller career and may also earn you priority consideration.

Classes that candidates take in these programs are heavily fundamental to aviation. These include the study of weather, federal regulations, airspace, and more.

2. Meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements

To pursue a career as an air traffic controller, there are a few requirements you need to meet. These include:

  • Be a U.S. citizen.

  • Pass the medical examination.

  • Take and complete the training course at the FAA Academy before turning 31.

  • Be able to relocate to an FAA facility.

  • Pass a background check.

  • Get a passing score on the FAA air traffic pre-employment test.

  • Be fluent in English.

3. Pass the qualifying tests for an FAA training program

After completing the AT-CTI program, those with a recommendation letter from the school become eligible to take the Air Traffic Selection and Training test.

Students often take this test before graduation. However, they must meet the school’s requirements to receive a recommendation first.

They also need to complete the FAA pre-employment test — which evaluates their fitness and personality.

After passing these tests, graduates become eligible to apply for a job as an air traffic controller. Once they’ve been hired, they can enroll in the FAA training program at the FAA Academy.

4. Complete an FAA training program

Before they can start working, they need to complete the FAA training program.

The program usually takes 2–5 months to complete, depending on the student’s background and the position they’ve been hired for.

5. Build experience

After graduating from the FAA Academy, trainees are now equipped to start working. They’ll be assigned to an air traffic control facility as development controllers. In this role, they must supply pilots with basic flight and airport information.

As their experience grows, they’ll be able to advance to controller positions where they’ll have more responsibility and a higher salary.

6. Get your certification

To become an air traffic controller, trainees need to be certified by the FAA. Once they meet the experience requirements and pass the knowledge test and practical exam, they earn the certification. It typically takes around 2–4 years to fully complete the training for full certification.

7. Pursue growth opportunities

The FAA requires air traffic controllers to retire at the age of 56. However, due to all their experience and training, they’d have the option to pursue other careers if they wanted to.

For example, since air traffic controllers build up managerial skills throughout their careers, they can choose to pursue a career as an operations manager or project manager.

There are also several other options, such as wind turbine technicians, maintenance managers, field service technicians, and more.

FAQs about an air traffic controller

How long does it take to become an air traffic controller?

The time it takes to become an air traffic controller will depend on many factors. It takes around two years to complete an associate’s degree, while a bachelor’s degree can take 3–4 years.

Even though a degree isn’t always necessary, it’s recommended to stand the best chance of acquiring a position. Then, it takes an additional 2–5 months to complete FAA training. Finally, gaining the necessary on-the-job experience to become fully certified takes around 2–4 years.

Thus, it can take anywhere from 5–8 years to become an air traffic controller.

Is it hard to become an air traffic controller?

Becoming an air traffic controller takes a lot of dedication and training. You need to be willing to spend many hours receiving on-the-job experience to qualify for your certification.

You’ll also need to pass tests that assess your health — so you’ll need to maintain a healthy lifestyle and good physical condition.

What is the maximum age for air traffic controllers?

Applicants who don’t have at least 52 weeks of air traffic control experience need to complete their training course at the FAA Academy before turning 31. They’ll also be required to retire or pursue a different career at 56.

Find a job as an air controller

Are you ready to pursue a career as an air traffic controller?

While it’ll take a lot of hard work and dedication, your paycheck will definitely be worth it. By following the steps in this article, you can become an air traffic controller within five years.

Interested in exploring different careers? Discover other high-paying associate degree jobs. Also, don’t forget to have a look at our Resource Center, where we give valuable tips on exploring job options, writing resumes, and getting hired.

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