How to become

How To Become Air Traffic Controller

How To Become Air Traffic Controller


An air traffic controller job is one of the highest-paying jobs that doesn’t always require a four-year degree. In this article, we discuss the primary duties of air traffic controllers, the average national salary for this role and the required steps for becoming one. We also answer some of the most frequently asked questions about this career.

Air traffic controllers help guide planes both in the sky and on the ground. They use technology that allows them to see all air traffic in a given area, and it is their responsibility to coordinate that traffic to ensure each flight takes off, lands, or passes through safely. Air traffic controllers communicate with pilots, telling them when to take off and land, and alerting them to issues with the weather and on the ground at the airport. They also direct the activities of airport personnel on the ground.

Different kinds of air traffic controllers have their own sets of responsibilities and work in different settings. Those who work in airport control towers may be responsible for directing activity on the runway or for making sure planes in the sky stay a safe distance away from each other. Others work in air traffic control centers between airports monitoring and guiding the traffic going through their airspace. Basically Air traffic controllers give information and advice to airline pilots to help them take off and land safely and on time.

Job Of Air Traffic Controller

What does an air traffic controller do?

An air traffic controller is responsible for coordinating the movement of air traffic, guiding pilots during takeoff and landing and monitoring the planes as they travel through the skies. Air traffic controllers’ 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.They manage communication by transferring control of departing flights to traffic control centers and they accept control of arriving flights. The air traffic controller is also responsible for controlling all ground traffic at airports, including baggage vehicles and maintenance employees. An air traffic controller works from control towers, approach control facilities, or route centers to give aircraft clearances to take off or land safely. They coordinate air traffic patterns to assure that aircrafts are safe distances apart. They have the responsibility of keeping aircrafts, flight crews, and airline passengers safe therefore are authorized to change flight paths as necessary.

Other duties include:

  • Providing information to pilots, including runway closures, weather updates and other critical information
  • Alerting airport personnel when there is any kind of aircraft emergency
  • Using computers, radar or visual references to monitor and direct the flow of aircraft in the sky and ground traffic at the airport


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. There are multiple types of air traffic controllers, including:

  • Tower controllers. These air traffic controllers direct the movement of all vehicles, including aircraft, that are on taxiways and runways.
  • Approach and depart controllers. These professionals ensure that the aircraft traveling in the airspace surrounding an airport maintain minimum separation for safety purposes.
  • En route controllers. This type of air traffic controller monitors aircraft after they leave an airport’s airspace.

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.

Pay, benefits, & hours


The national average salary for an air traffic controller is $50,879 per year, with salaries ranging from $14,000 to $130,000 depending on the location of the facility, complexity of the flight path and other factors. The salaries for entry-level air traffic control specialists increase as they complete each new training phase.


As a federal employee, air traffic control specialists receive a benefits package that rivals, if not surpasses, those offered in the private sector, with a variety of insurance, retirement, leave and flexible spending options for employees and their families.


Most air traffic control specialists work full time, and some work additional hours. Larger air traffic control facilities operate continuously, and employees may rotate among day, evening, and night shifts, along with weekends and holidays. Smaller facilities have more standard dawn to dusk operating hours.

Work Environment

Most controllers work 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 and 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 screens properly.

Air traffic controllers must react quickly and efficiently while maintaining maximum concentration. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers can be tiring. As a result, controllers 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.

Work Schedules

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. The FAA regulates the hours that an air traffic controller may work. Controllers may not work more than 10 straight hours during a shift and must have 9 hours’ rest before their next shift.

Controllers may rotate shifts during the 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 may have standard work schedules.

Minimum Requirements

  • Be a United States citizen
  • Be age 30 or under (on the closing date of the application period)
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass a security investigation
  • Pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment test
  • Speak English clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment
  • Have three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a Bachelor’s degree, or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years
  • Be willing to relocate to an FAA facility based on agency staffing needs

How to become an air traffic controller

Here are the basic steps you can take to become an air traffic controller:

  1. Pursue an education.
  2. Meet the Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
  3. Pass the qualifying tests for an FAA training program.
  4. Complete an FAA training program.
  5. Gain experience.
  6. Obtain a certification.

1. Pursue an education.

Aspiring air traffic controllers typically need an associate or bachelor’s degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. Candidates with three years of progressively responsible work experience may also be considered. However, because these jobs tend to be highly competitive, a two- or four-year degree from an AT-CTI school will prepare you for a career in air traffic control. The classes that candidates take in these programs are focused on subjects fundamental to aviation. Students study airspace, aviation, weather, reading charts, federal regulations, clearances and other similar topics. 36 schools across the country are approved through AT-CTI to offer associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for aspiring air traffic controllers.

While the FAA requires prospective air traffic controllers to have three years of experience working in a field related to aviation, you can meet the experience requirement by completing a four-year bachelor’s degree.

2. Meet the Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

To become an air traffic controller, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Be a U.S. citizen.
  • Pass a medical evaluation and drug screening.
  • Pass a background check.
  • Complete a training course at FAA Academy before turning 31.

3. Pass the qualifying tests for an FAA training program.

After completing the AT-CTI program, students who have a recommendation letter from their school are eligible to take the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam. Students usually take this exam before graduation, but they must have met their school’s requirements to receive the recommendation. They are also required to pass the FAA pre-employment test, which assesses personality and fitness. After passing the exams, they are eligible to apply for air traffic controller jobs. Once they have accepted a job offer, graduates are eligible to enroll in the training course at FAA Academy.

4. Complete an FAA training program.

Training at FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, usually lasts from two to five months, depending on your background and the position for which you’ve been hired.

5. Gain experience.

After graduating from FAA Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers. In this role, they supply pilots with basic airport and flight information. As they obtain more experience, they advance to positions in the control role that offer greater responsibility.

6. Obtain a certification.

Air traffic controllers must be certified by the FAA. You can earn a certification by passing a knowledge test and practical exam and meeting the experience requirements through on-the-job training. It typically takes two to four years to complete the training that leads to full certification.

What it takes

Find out what skills you’ll use in this role.

Skills and knowledge

You’ll need:

  • concentration skills
  • knowledge of transport methods, costs and benefits
  • the ability to use your judgement and make decisions
  • the ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure
  • excellent verbal communication skills
  • complex problem-solving skills
  • to be thorough and pay attention to detail
  • the ability to think clearly using logic and reasoning
  • to have a thorough understanding of computer systems and applications

Training Required

The kind of training required to become an air traffic controller

Air traffic controllers go through two phases of training. The first phase is typically completed through a program approved by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative(AT-CTI). 36 schools across the country are approved through AT-CTI to offer associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs for prospective air traffic controllers.

If you are interested in entering an AT-CTI program, you should first make sure you can meet the FAA’s standards for the employment of air traffic controllers. Air traffic controllers must be United States citizens, be younger than 31 years of age when they are first hired, and pass a criminal history background check and a medical exam that includes vision, color vision, hearing, psychological, substance abuse, cardiovascular, and neurological screenings.

Associate degree-level AT-CTI programs typically focus closely on air traffic control, but bachelor’s and master’s degree programs widen their focus to aeronautics, aviation management, or aviation technology. Students in associate degree programs take courses in topics like aviation weather, aviation law, basic navigation and flight operations, air traffic control technology, radar, and human factors. Students in bachelor’s and master’s degree programs take these courses but also delve more deeply into aviation science and branch into computer science, management, or research.

Graduates of AT-CTI programs must receive a recommendation from their school and pass the FAA’s bio-data assessment and Air Traffic Selection and Training Test to move on to the next step in the training process. Based on the results of these tests, the FAA hires a group of graduates to continue their training at the FAA Academy. At the FAA Academy, air traffic controllers receive intensive training that includes classroom instruction and work on air traffic control simulators. Students who complete this training program are assigned to a job location where they continue their training while working.

Growth Opportunities

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.

StateAverage Air Traffic Controller Salary (May 2021)
New Hampshire$150,490

Cost of air traffic controller school

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.

Frequently asked questions about being an air traffic controller

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

FAA academy generally takes two to five months to complete, depending on your experience. It then takes another two to four years of on-the-job training to become fully certified. Air traffic controllers may become fully certified in as little as five years, or as many as eight.

Do air traffic controllers work long hours?

Most air traffic controllers work full time, although some may work additional hours. However, the number of hours that an air traffic controller may work is regulated by the FAA. They may not work more than 10 hours straight or have less than nine hours between shifts.

Is an air traffic controller considered an ‘in demand’ career?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for air traffic controllers from 2018 to 2028 is expected to change little or not at all. Competition for available jobs is expected to be intense, and those with military experience are expected to have an edge over other candidates.

What qualities should an air traffic controller have?

Air traffic controllers should possess the following qualities:

  • Concentration. Because they maintain the flow of aircraft in and out of airports and in-flight, air traffic controllers are key to aviation safety. Doing this successfully requires total concentration.
  • Decision-making skills. Air traffic controllers must be able to make quick decisions that impact the safety of everyone onboard an aircraft.
  • Math skills. Controllers must be able to calculate speed, time and distance and recommend changes in heading or altitude.

Communication skills. Controllers must be able to give clear and concise instructions and use active listening skills to listen carefully to the pilot’s response or requests.