How Can I Become an Air Traffic Controller?

Explore the career requirements for air traffic controllers. Get the facts about education, salary, certification requirements and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Aviation Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring traffic in airports, airspace and other designated areas. While their primary concern is the safety of all aircraft and passengers, they they must keep everything moving in order to make sure there are few delays. Their duties include but are not limited to issuing landing instructions to pilots, motoring the movements of all aircraft in the area, and controlling all aircraft and baggage traffic on the ground. The following chart provides an overview about becoming an air traffic controller.

Degree Required Associate's degree
Training Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative or FAA Academy training program
Certification Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate is required
Key Responsibilities Monitor and track air traffic and airport ground traffic; communicate with aircraft and airport regarding status of aircraft, airport and airspace; provide landing and takeoff clearances and instruction; transfer control and receive control of aircraft to and from other control centers
Job Growth (2014-2024) -9%*
Median Salary (2015) $122,950*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What's Required to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

Aspiring air traffic controllers have several different career path options. Candidates with prior air traffic control experience, either with the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), automatically qualify for jobs as air traffic controllers. The general public, who have no previous experience in air traffic control, can apply at different times of the year, provided that they have attained three years of progressive work experience, a 4-year bachelor's degree, or an acceptable combination of college and work experience.

Chosen candidates must take an 8-hour pre-employment examination which determines their capability of becoming an air traffic controller. Applicants can also enroll in FAA-sponsored Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programs which are offered at some colleges and universities in partnership with the FAA. The programs consist of classes in air traffic control and aviation and can award either associate's or bachelor's degrees. Schools must give formal recommendations to the FAA before their graduates will be considered for air traffic controller jobs.

Air traffic control associate's degree programs may include courses in navigational science, aeronautical science, computer literacy, airport planning and design, airport management, airline security, speech communications, aviation safety and radar procedures. Bachelor's degree programs in aviation may offer courses in the areas of flight, operations and management.

Prospective air traffic controllers must be United States citizens, pass physical examinations and security investigations, and be younger than 31 years of age in most instances. Chosen employees receive 12 weeks of training, which takes place at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. There, they learn FAA regulations and the principles of aircraft performance and airway systems.

How Do I Become Certified?

As a new air traffic controller, you'll be a 'developmental controller' until certification is attained. You must meet the certification requirements for all air traffic control positions in the air traffic facilities to which you are assigned. This can take anywhere from 2-4 years, although trainees who have had prior experience can meet certification requirements in less time. Certification in any and all positions within certain timeframes is mandatory. You'll be given performance tests twice a year.

What Job Duties Will I Have?

Your job duties will depend on your specific job title. In general, you'll instruct aircraft pilots as to where and when to land their planes at airports, give alternate landing information in cases of emergency or bad weather, and inform airport emergency departments if aircraft experience technical difficulties. Maintaining communication with pilots in emergencies may be another aspect of your job.

How Much Money Could I Earn?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual salary for air traffic controllers was $122,950 in May 2015 (www.bls.gov). The middle 50% of air traffic controllers earned between $86,330 and $150,120. The lower 10% of employees made $66,780 or less while the most experienced employees in the top 10% made at least $172,590.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Many air traffic controllers prefer to stay in the aviation industry. Aircraft mechanics and technicians repair different types of aircraft, perform maintenance, and possibly inspect them as well. Pilots actually fly and navigate the aircraft and transport individuals or cargo. Some may even perform important such as photography or crop dusting. That said, all of these roles require additional specified training.

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