Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe distances between them.
What they do
Air traffic controllers typically do the following:
- Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air
- Control all ground traffic at airport runways and taxiways
- Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots
- Transfer control of departing flights to other traffic control centers and accept control of arriving flights
- Inform pilots about weather, runway closures, and other critical information
- Alert airport response staff in the event of an aircraft emergency
Air traffic controllers’ primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor aircraft as they travel through the skies. Air traffic controllers use radar, computers, or visual references to monitor and direct the movement of the aircraft in the skies and ground traffic at airports.
Controllers usually manage multiple aircraft at the same time and must make quick decisions to ensure the safety of aircraft. For example, a controller might direct one aircraft on its landing approach while providing another aircraft with weather information.
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 semi dark 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.
How to become an Air Traffic Controller
There are several different paths to becoming an air traffic controller. A candidate must have either 3 years of progressively responsible work experience, a bachelor’s degree, a combination of postsecondary education and work experience totaling three years, or obtain a degree through an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program.
Additionally, to become an air traffic controller, candidates must
- be a U.S. citizen;
- pass a medical evaluation, including drug screening, and background checks;
- pass the FAA preemployment test, which includes a biographical assessment;
- pass the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA); and
- complete a training course at the FAA Academy (and start it before turning 31 years of age).
The biographical assessment, also known as a biodata test, is a behavioral consistency exam that evaluates a candidate’s personality fitness to become an air traffic controller. For more information, see the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) page on biodata tests. Applicants who pass both the ATSA and the biographical assessment are eligible to enroll in the FAA Academy.
Controllers also must pass a physical exam each year and a job performance exam twice per year. In addition, they must pass periodic drug screenings.
Some learn their skills and become air traffic controllers while in the military.
Candidates who want to become air traffic controllers typically need an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree from an AT-CTI program. Other candidates must have 3 years of progressively responsible work experience, have completed 4 years of college, or have a combination of both.
The FAA sets guidelines for schools that offer the AT-CTI program. AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that are designed to prepare students for a career in air traffic control. The curriculum is not standardized, but courses focus on subjects that are fundamental to aviation. Topics include aviation weather, airspace, clearances, reading charts, federal regulations, and related topics.
Most newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, OK. The length of training varies with the applicant’s background. Applicants must be hired by their 31st birthday.
After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers, until they complete all requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller. Developmental controllers begin their careers by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to positions within the control room that have more responsibility.
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $122,990 in May 2019. 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 $68,330, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $176,320.
Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to is projected to grow 1 percent from 2019 to 2029, slower than the average for all occupations.
Although air traffic is projected to increase in the next decade, the satellite-based Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is expected to allow individual controllers to handle more air traffic. As a result, the demand for additional air traffic controllers should be limited over the next 10 years.
Similar Job Titles
Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATCS); Air Traffic Control Specialist, Terminal; Air Traffic Control Specialist/Certified Professional Controller (ATC Specialist/CPC); Air Traffic Controller (ATC); Air Traffic Controller (Enroute Option); Air Traffic Controller (Tower Option); Air Traffic Controller, Center; Certified Professional Controller (CPC); Control Tower Operator; Radar Air Traffic Controller
Mapping Technician, Radio Operator, Computer Operator, Power Distributor and Dispatcher, Airfield Operations Specialist
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- Air Traffic Control Association
- Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
- National Air Traffic Controllers Association
- National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees
- Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
- Professional Women Controllers
Magazines and Publications
Watching blips on radar screens can make it seem like playing a video game… but each number on screen represents an aircraft – and the safety of flights depends on the careful, decisive guidance of air traffic controllers. These professionals typically work in the airport control tower to direct the flow of planes and passengers— whether on the ground, taking off, or coming in for a landing. Safety is their main priority— but air traffic controllers also try to minimize delays. Each controller is part of a nationwide system, responding to weather, mechanical difficulties, and all the small things that can cause big problems for pre-arranged flight plans. They must follow procedures to the letter, adapt to new circumstances continuously, and communicate clearly. Most air traffic controllers in the United States are trained at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy; trainees must start training before age 31, have U.S. citizenship, and pass several evaluations including an assessment of their ability to cope with mental stress over long hours. An aviation background is a plus. With the unusual characteristic of mandatory retirement at age 56, and typically excellent pay and benefits, this can be an attractive career that demands concentrated focus. Like the intricate cogs of a Swiss watch, air traffic controllers are part of an elegant choreography that makes air travel safe and speedy.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistic www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org