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Air Traffic Control Career and Training Information

Air Traffic Controller Career Highlights

  • The Federal Aviation Administration—a component of the Federal Government—is the nearly exclusive employer of all air traffic controllers
  • During the next decade, many air traffic controllers will qualify for retirement, potentially making many new jobs available.

Air Traffic Controller Career Overview and Description

The air traffic control system is an extensive, interconnected organization of people and equipment that works to ensure the safety of all people and groups involved in private and commercial flight. Air traffic controllers monitor and direct air traffic in order to maintain a safe distance between aircraft. Air traffic controllers are primarily responsible for safety issues, but also work to create efficiency and decrease delays. Some controllers regulate airport traffic, while others regulate flights between airports.

Airport tower or terminal controllers are primarily responsible for organizing the flow of the airport’s arrivals and departures, although they also monitor all aircraft that enters the airport’s airspace. With the assistance of radar and visual observation, these controllers observe and supervise the movements of each plane in order to maintain a safe distance between aircraft, as well as to direct pilots between hangers, ramps and the limits of the airport’s airspace. Controllers also advise pilots of potentially dangerous weather changes, such as sudden, aircraft-affecting shifts of wind velocity or direction known as “wind shear.”

More than one controller directs each plane during arrival and departure. During a plane’s approach, the pilot notifies the terminal of the plane’s impending arrival. The plane’s location has already been radar-observed by a controller in the radar room, located just beneath the control tower. If there is no impeding traffic, the controller guides the pilot to an available runway. If the airport is experiencing busy traffic, the controller will direct the pilot to join a traffic pattern with other aircraft that have not yet landed. As the plane makes its final approach to the runway, a controller asks the pilot to contact the tower. Using radar, a tower controller then monitors the last mile of the aircraft’s runway approach, making sure no departing planes interfere with the landing. After landing, the plane is directed along the airport’s taxiways by a ground controller located in the tower. Although ground controllers may use radar in conditions of poor visibility, they usually work only by sight.

Departures involve the same procedures, but in reverse. First, the ground controller guides the plane to the appropriate runway. The pilot is then informed about the airport’s weather and visibility conditions by the local controller, who also delivers runway clearance prior to takeoff. As the plane leaves ground, the departure controller guides the plane out of the airport’s airspace.

When the plane leave the airport’s airspace, enroute controllers are notified by the tower controllers, and subsequently take charge of the plane’s flight. Between 300 and 700 air traffic controllers are employed at each of 21 national air route traffic centers. At the busiest centers, more than 150 controllers may be on duty during peak hours. Each center monitors a specific airspace that contains numerous different routes designated for airplane flights. Each enroute traffic controller team—consisting of as many as three controllers, depending on traffic—monitors a specific portion of each center’s airspace. For instance, a team might monitor all planes flying at altitudes between 6,000 and 18,000 feet in the area located between 30 and 100 miles north of an airport.

As planes approach the team’s airspace, the radar associate controller prepares by organizing flight plans that come off a printer. In the event that two planes have flight paths that will cause them to arrive in a team’s airspace at a coinciding time, location and altitude, the radar associate controller may contact the preceding control unit to make flight path adjustments for one or both airplanes. This previous unit may be another enroute team at the same or a nearby center, or a departure controller at an adjoining terminal. As a plane prepares to enter a team’s airspace, the radar associate controller assumes responsibility for the aircraft from the previous control unit. When the plane exits the team’s airspace, the radar associate controller transfers the plane’s monitoring to the next control unit.

The senior member of the team is the radar controller. Radar controllers use radar to monitor all planes within the team’s airspace, and make any necessary communications to pilots. They are responsible for advising pilots of any potential hazards, including poor weather conditions and nearby planes. If two planes are on a collision course, they are directed away from each other. The radar controller verifies a clear path for any pilots who wish to alter their plane’s altitude in search of better flying conditions. As a plane prepares to leave a team’s airspace, the team coordinates with the next team in the receiving airspace. In this way, a plane is safely guided to its destination.

Because airport tower and enroute controllers normally monitor several planes simultaneously, they must frequently make instant decisions about entirely different situations. For instance, a controller may be responsible for directing a plane’s landing approach while simultaneously notifying pilots entering the airport’s airspace of the airport’s specific conditions. In addition to these activities, the controller may also have to monitor the safe distance between other planes in the area, such as those waiting to land, etc.

Air traffic controllers are not limited to positions in airport towers or enroute centers—they also work in more than 100 flight service stations across the nation. As flight service specialists, these controllers supply pilots with information unique to specific areas, thus helping ensure a flight’s safety. This information may include suggested route as well as weather and terrain information. Flight service specialists also assist pilots in an emergency and coordinate efforts to locate lost or late aircraft. These specialists do not, however, play anactive role in air traffic management.

Air traffic controllers are also employed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Herndon, Virginia-based Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. Here, controllers monitor the entire air traffic system. Specifically, they examine the system for potentially hazardous or problematic situations—such as bottlenecks—and then develop a plan to manage traffic affected by the problem. Their goal is to correct any air traffic problems that may prevent enroute controllers from effectively managing traffic.

The FAA is currently in the process of implementing the National Airspace System (NAS) Architecture, which is a newly-developed automated air traffic control system. Through this long-term strategic plan, air traffic controllers will eventually be able to manage increased air traffic with greater efficiency. The NAS Architecture includes the implementation of new procedures, systems and technologies in replacement of obsolete equipment. Such advances will promote overall aviation growth and improve safety and security.

Air Traffic Controller Training and Qualifications

Prospective air traffic controllers must enroll in an education program approved by the FAA. To qualify to work in the air traffic control system, students must successfully complete a test that assesses their ability to learn the duties relevant to air traffic control. These qualifications are mandatory for all applicants who are not military veterans or do not have prior air traffic control experience. At present, only students in the FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) Program or the Minneapolis Community & Technical College, Air Traffic Control Training Program are offered the necessary pre-employment test. All applicants must also have 4 years of college or 3 years of full-time work experience, or a combination of the two (when combining work experience and education, 1 year of undergraduate study—30 semester or 45 quarter hours—is equivalent to 9 months of work experience). Prospective air traffic controllers become eligible for employment upon successfully completing an FAA-approved program, receiving school recommendation and meeting essential requirements for qualification, such as age limit and passing the FAA-authorized pre-employment test. Prior to employment, applicants must also receive security clearance and pass medical and drug screening exams.

Hired employees enroll in a 12 week training program at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where they are instructed in FAA regulations, aircraft performance characteristics, controller equipment, airway system fundamentals and more specific duties.

New graduates do not immediately become fully qualified controllers: it generally requires a few years of increasingly responsible work experience, along with extensive further classroom and personal study to achieve that position. Those who do not finish their academy education or fail to complete sufficient on-the-job training normally find themselves unemployed. An annual physical examination and biannual job performance reviews must also be successfully passed by controllers. Controllers who do not progress to certification for specific positions within a reasonable time may also be released by employers. Controllers must also pass periodic drug screenings in order to remain employed.

Because they must communicate quickly and intelligibly to pilots, air traffic controllers must be clear and effective speakers. Controllers should be intelligent and have good memories, because they constantly receive information that must be rapidly processed, understood, interpreted and remembered. Controllers must also possess quick and accurate decision making skills, as they must often make important and immediate decisions. These decisions often come surrounded by noise and other distractions, making it important that controllers possess high levels of concentration.

New controllers employed by airports normally begin their careers by providing basic airport information and flight data to pilots. As they gain experience, they normally progress to ground controller, and then to local controller, followed by departure controller and, ultimately, arrival controller. Controllers who work at air route traffic control centers normally begin by delivering printed flight plans to enroute teams. With experience, they may progress first to radar associate controller, and later to radar controller.

Controllers also have the opportunity to transfer to new job locations or gain administrative and management positions within air traffic control and in the higher ranks of the FAA. Nevertheless, there are relative;y few opportunites for enroute controllers to transfer to tower positions.

Air Traffic Controller Employment Opportunities

The career market for air traffic employers is expected to maintain pace with overall average employment growth through 2012. As air traffic increases, more air traffic controllers will be needed. However, it is unlikely that employment growth will be proportionate to increases in aircraft numbers, due to Federal budget restrictions and the expanding use of automated control systems. Many route decisions currently made by controllers will eventually be made by computerized systems. Accordingly, controller productivity will increase as controllers are able to manage more air traffic. Again, employers may also be limited by Federal budget constraints in their controller hiring practices.

As long as they consistently maintain necessary levels of proficiency and meet basic medical requirements, air traffic controllers benefit from a comparatively high level of job security. Despite off-season and recession related declines in air travel (and, consequently, air traffic controller workloads), controllers are rarely dismissed as a result of slow business.

Historical Earnings Information

In 2002, air traffic controllers earned a median of $91,600. $65,480 and $112,550 were the lower and upper boundaries for the middle 50 percent of all air traffic controller earnings. 10 percent of controllers made less than $46,410, and 10 percent made more than $131,610.

In 2002, air traffic controllers employed by the Federal government in non-supervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average annual salary of $95,700. This includes ninety percent of all air traffic controllers. Controllers’ wages vary with the complexity of their specific facilities and the extent of their job responsibility. Those who work in busier air traffic control centers, for example, tend to earn a higher salary.

Air traffic controllers receive life insurance and health benefits, including 13 days of paid sick leave per year. They also receive between 13 and 26 days of paid vacation time, depending on the duration of their employment. Air traffic controllers are also able to retire after a shorter period of service and at an earlier age then the majority of other Federal workers. Specifically, controllers age 50 and over qualify for retirement if they have completed 20 years of active service, and all controllers may retire after 25 years of active service, regardless of age. Controllers who manage air traffic are required to retire at age 56, although those who possess outstanding ability and experience may receive a federal exemption allowing them to work until age 61.


(Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.)

(Information on this page is based on data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,