Page updated 5/1/2016
Air Traffic Controller Jobs and Careers
The air traffic control system is a vast network
of people and equipment that ensures the safe
operation of commercial and private aircraft. Air
traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air
traffic to make certain that planes stay a safe
distance apart. Their immediate concern is safety,
but controllers also must direct planes efficiently
to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic
through designated airspaces; others regulate
airport arrivals and departures. Air traffic
controller jobs are pretty difficult to acquire but
offer a very competitive salary and good benefits.
The FAA will hire thousands of new air traffic controllers over the next 5 years and the median salary exceeds $122,000. Applicants without prior air traffic control experience must be 30 years of age or younger.
Dennis Damp, author of The Book of U.S. Government Jobs, discussed air traffic controller jobs on the CNN Your Money show. Dennis worked for the FAA for 30 of his 35 years of government service and can attest first hand to how rewarding a career with the FAA can be and was in his case. Dennis was an electronics system specialist, training instructor, project engineer, computer-based instruction administrator, training program manager, program support manager, and environmental health and safety program manager while with the FAA. Dennis held numerous supervisory and management positions and was responsible for recruiting, rating and interviewing applicants, outreach and hiring. His last government position was technical operations manager at the Pittsburgh International Airport's air traffic control tower. The following information will help you understand the air traffic control job field and what it takes to work in this area. You also need to understand the application system and how to apply. This site and his book will help you do just that.
Terminal controllers watch over all planes traveling in an airport's airspace. Their main responsibility is to organize the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport. They work in either the control tower or the terminal radar approach control (TRACON) room or building. Relying on visual observation, the tower local controllers sequence arrival aircraft for landing and issue departure clearances for those departing from the airport. Other controllers in the tower control the movement of aircraft on the taxiways, handle flight data, and provide flight plan clearances. Terminal radar controllers manage aircraft departing from or arriving to an airport by monitoring each aircraft’s movement on radar to ensure that a safe distance is maintained between all aircraft under their control. In addition, terminal controllers keep pilots informed about weather and runway conditions.
Many different controllers are involved in the departure of an airplane. If the plane is flying under instrument flight rule conditions, a flight plan is filed prior to departure. The tower flight data controller receives the flight plan in the form of a flight strip, which is output from a computer, and arranges it in sequence. When an aircraft calls for clearance the clearance delivery controller issues the clearance and moves the strip over to the ground controller who manages the movement of aircraft on the airport surface, except the active runway. When the aircraft arrives at the active runway the strip is moved to the local controller who issues the departure clearance, observes the takeoff and turns the plane over to the departure controller. The TRACON departure controller identifies the plane on radar, climbs it, and directs it on course.
In addition to airport towers and en route centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations at 17 locations in Alaska. These flight service specialists provide pilots with preflight and in-flight weather information, suggested routes, and other aeronautical information important to the safety of a flight. Flight service specialists relay air traffic control clearances to pilots not in direct communications with a tower or center, assist pilots in emergency situations, and initiate and coordinate searches for missing or overdue aircraft. At certain locations where there is no airport tower or the tower has closed for the day, flight service specialists provide airport advisory services to landing and departing aircraft. However, they are not involved in actively managing and separating air traffic.
Some air traffic controllers work at the FAA's Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, VA, where they oversee the entire system. They look for situations that will create bottlenecks or other problems in the system and then respond with a management plan for traffic into and out of the troubled sector. The objective is to keep traffic levels in the trouble spots manageable for the controllers working at en route centers.
To become an air traffic controller with the FAA, a person must achieve a qualifying score on the FAA-authorized pre-employment test and meet the basic qualification requirements in accordance with Federal law. Those without prior air traffic control experience must be 30 years of age or younger.
Air traffic controller career education and training. There are three main pathways to become an air traffic controller with the FAA. The first is air traffic controllers with prior experience through either the FAA or the Department of Defense as a civilian or veteran. Second are applicants from the general public. These applicants must have 3 years of progressively responsible full-time work experience, have completed a full 4 years of college, or a combination of both. In combining education and experience, 1 year of undergraduate study—30 semester or 45 quarter hours—is equivalent to 9 months of work experience. The third way is for an applicant to have successfully completed an aviation-related program of study through the FAA’s Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. AT-CTI program schools offer 2–year or 4-year non-engineering degrees that teach basic courses in aviation and air traffic control. In addition to graduation, AT-CTI candidates need a recommendation from their school before being considered for employment as an air traffic controller by the FAA.
Candidates with prior experience as air traffic controllers are automatically qualified for FAA air traffic controller jobs. However, applicants from the general public and the AT-CTI program must pass the FAA-authorized pre-employment test that measures their ability to learn the duties of a controller. The test is administered by computer and takes about 8 hours to complete. To take the test, an applicant must apply under an open advertisement for air traffic control positions and be chosen to take the examination. When there are many more applicants than available testing positions, applicants are selected randomly. However, the FAA guarantees that all AT-CTI students in good standing in their programs will be given the FAA pre-employment test. Those who achieve a qualifying score on the test become eligible for employment as an air traffic controller. Candidates must be granted security and medical clearance and are subject to drug screening. Additionally, applicants must meet other basic qualification requirements in accordance with Federal law. These requirements include United States citizenship and the ability to speak English.
Upon selection, employees attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK, for 12 weeks of air traffic controller training, during which they learn the fundamentals of the airway system, FAA regulations, controller equipment, and aircraft performance characteristics, as well as more specialized tasks. Graduates of the AT-CTI program are eligible to bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first 5 weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy.
After graduation from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, candidates are assigned to an air traffic control facility and are classified as “developmental controllers until they complete all requirements to be certified for all of the air traffic control positions within a defined area of a given facility. Generally, it takes new controllers with only initial controller training between 2 and 4 years, depending on the facility and the availability of facility staff or contractors to provide on-the-job training, to complete all the certification requirements to become certified professional controllers. Individuals who have had prior controller experience normally take less time to become fully certified. Controllers who fail to complete either the academy or the on-the-job portions of the training usually are dismissed. Controllers must pass a physical examination each year and a job performance examination twice each year. Failure to become certified in any position at a facility within a specified time also may result in dismissal. Controllers also are subject to drug screenings as a condition of continuing employment.
Other qualifications. Air traffic controllers must be articulate to give pilots directions quickly and clearly. Intelligence and a good memory also are important because controllers constantly receive information that they must immediately grasp, interpret, and remember. Decisiveness also is required because controllers often have to make quick decisions. The ability to concentrate is crucial because controllers must make these decisions in the midst of noise and other distractions.
Advancement. At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to the position of ground controller, local controller, departure controller, and, finally, arrival controller. At an air route traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate controller and then to radar controller.
Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to
supervisory positions, including management or staff jobs—such as air traffic
control data systems computer specialist—in air traffic control, and top
administrative jobs in the FAA. However, there are only limited opportunities
for a controller to switch from a position in an en route center to a tower.
Today over 15,000 federal air traffic controllers in airport traffic control towers, Terminal radar approach control facilities and air route traffic control centers guide pilots through the system. An additional 1,375 civilian contract controllers and more than 9,500 military controllers also provide air traffic services for the NAS. These controllers provide air navigation services to aircraft in domestic airspace, including 24.6 million square miles of international oceanic airspace delegated to the United States by the International Civil Aviation Organization. As of October 1, 2012, the FAA operated 315 air traffic control facilities and the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in the United States.
In the last five years, the FAA has hired more than 6,600 new air traffic controllers. They plan to hire more than 6,200 new controllers over the next five years to keep pace with expected attrition and traffic growth. Increasing air traffic will require more controllers to handle the additional work. Job growth, however, is not expected to keep pace with the increasing number of aircraft flying due to advances in technology.
A significant number of air traffic controllers will be eligible to retire over the next decade, although not all are expected to do so.
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $122,530 in May 2012. 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 $64,930, and the top 10 percent earned more than $171,340 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits.