Page updated 4/12/2014
Air Traffic Controller
Jobs and Training
The air traffic control system is a vast network of people and equipment
that ensures the safe operation of commercial and private aircraft.
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 available in many regions and are opening up rapidly.
The FAA will hire more than 6,200 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. Learn more about applying for air traffic controller jobs below.
The National Airspace System (NAS) is a vast
network of people and equipment that ensures the safe operation of
commercial and private aircraft. Air traffic controllers work within the NAS
to coordinate the movement of air traffic to make certain that planes stay a
safe distance apart. It takes a good bit of air traffic controller training to land a job.
Damp, author of The Book of U.S. Government
Jobs, discussed air traffic controller careers 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
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
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 acquire an air traffic controller job 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.
Education and air traffic controller training. There are three main pathways to getting an air
traffic controller job 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 in an air traffic controller position are automatically
qualified for FAA air traffic controller positions. 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 air traffic controller 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 more than 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.
Return to Top of Page