Air Traffic Controller Jobs: Salary and Career Facts

Research what it takes to become an air traffic controller. Learn about education requirements, job responsibilities, average salary and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Aviation Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is an Air Traffic Controller?

An air traffic controller is responsible for monitoring aircraft and directing pilots to ensure the safety flight of all planes. They approve pilots for take off and landing at airports. They must check to ensure runways and airspace is clear prior to doing so. They also use radar and monitor airplanes in the air. They keep pilots informed of any weather systems or other issues that may affect their flight. In the event of an emergency they are responsible for informing airport response staff.

Education or Training Required Get military experience as an air traffic controller, earn a non-engineering aviation degree from the FAA's Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program, or obtain a bachelor's degree and three years of related work experience
Job Responsibilities Direct and monitor aircraft, provide flight path changes and inform pilots of hazardous conditions
Job Growth (2014-2024) -9%*
Average Salary (2015) $118,740*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Skills Do I Need to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

As an air traffic controller, your main job is to direct and monitor aircraft. According to the Occupational Information Network, you may provide flight path changes, inform pilots of hazardous weather conditions, direct ground traffic and transfer control of departing flights to traffic control centers (www.onetonline.org). In order to do this job effectively, you must also be able to work efficiently and quickly while possessing complete concentration as to the status of several airplanes. You may also need to be articulate and be decisive when interacting with pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states that air traffic controllers must be motivated, committed, self-confident and decisive (www.faa.gov).

What Education or Training Do I Need?

According to the FAA, there are three distinct ways you can become an air traffic controller through education and experience. You may be able to do this by choosing among three separate paths. The first way is to obtain military experience as an air traffic controller. The second option is to enroll in the FAA's Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program to earn a 2- or 4-year non-engineering aviation degree. Numerous colleges and universities have joined with the FAA to offer the AT-CTI program. The third choice is to complete three years of related work experience or obtain a bachelor's degree.

Many schools offer bachelor's degree programs in air traffic management or aviation technology. Courses may cover aviation law, tower operations and procedures, radar equipment and air traffic control regulations. In addition to classroom settings, you may use state-of-the-art simulation equipment, which may include a control tower, radar or air traffic control facility. These items may help replicate real-life air traffic control situations, such as directing and monitoring aircraft.

What Salary Should I Expect and What Is the Job Outlook?

Compensation for air traffic controllers may vary based upon level of experience and location. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the FAA employs most controllers while a smaller amount of civilian controllers works for the U.S. Department of Defense. The BLS also reported that the average annual salary of air traffic controllers was $118,740 as of May 2015. The majority of workers earned between $66,780 and $172,590 annually. Between 2014 and 2024, the number of air traffic controller jobs is predicted to decline by 9%, according to the BLS. This is due to technological advances that will enable air traffic controllers to handle more traffic.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Air traffic controllers have some professional similarities to police, fire and ambulance dispatchers. Like air traffic controllers, police, fire and ambulance dispatchers use radio systems to communicate with police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers. Police, fire and ambulance dispatchers receive incoming calls and then verify the necessary information and relay that information to the appropriate emergency service. They may stay connected to the person who has placed the call and the emergency services while they're en route and update the person waiting for help on the status of the emergency service professionals who have been dispatched. This is very similar to the work of an air traffic controller, because they may be receiving information that they need to relay to a pilot, or receive information from a pilot that needs to be relayed to airport officials or response teams. One of the key objectives of an air traffic controller is to ensure the safety of all crews and passengers aboard planes that they are monitoring, and the safety and well-being of those needing emergency services is a key focus of police, fire and ambulance dispatchers. The information that these professionals relay may be crucial in ensuring a prompt response to an emergency situation that helps save lives.

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