How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

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Rigorous Training to Keep Planes Flying Safely

Air traffic control is a stressful occupation, but one of utmost importance. Every day, Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control specialists guide pilots and their planes from takeoff to landing. A job as an air traffic controller is not easy to obtain. There are stringent requirements and an intense amount of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. However, for the work, these specialists are well-compensated.

Job Description

From their vantage point in air traffic control towers at airports, controllers follow and direct airplanes' movement both on the ground and in the air. When a plane takes off and leaves that controller's airspace, it's handed off to another traffic control center; similarly, ATC specialists take control of incoming flights. They do all of this with the help of radar, computers and visual references.

The main focus for an air traffic controller is safety, but keeping the flow of aircraft moving to minimize delays is important too.

Education Requirements

There's no one set path to becoming an air traffic controller. A person must have three years of progressively responsible work experience, a bachelor's degree, a three-year combination of postsecondary education and work experience, or a degree from an FAA-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program.

But there are noneducation requirements too. Air traffic control candidates must be U.S. citizens and pass medical evaluations, drug screenings and background checks, as well as a behavioral consistency exam that evaluates if a candidate's personality meshes with what's needed as an air traffic controller. Candidates must also pass the Air Traffic Skills Assessment, or ATSA.

If you can pass these tests, you are eligible to enroll in the FAA Academy for training, the length of which varies depending on your education and experience. You must be under 31 years of age before enrolling at the academy to be eligible.


Of the nearly 25,000 air traffic controllers in 2020, the majority—89 percent—work for the federal government. The remainder are employed in air transportation support activities or in professional, scientific and technical services.

Air traffic controllers typically work in control towers, approach control facilities or en route centers, the latter of which monitor air traffic that's in the process of flying from one destination to another. These positions are not typically located at airports, but the other types are.

Years of Experience

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median wage for this profession was $130,420. The salary for air traffic controllers increases with additional training, but it also depends on where they are employed. Entry-level pay for a controller while training at the academy is $18,343 a year, plus locality pay for Oklahoma City. Locality pay ranges from 14.35 percent to 35.75 percent, based on the location where the person is employed. After graduation, a controller starts at $38,193, not including locality pay, but it eventually ranges between $72,760 and $130,420.

Job Growth Trend

Competition for air traffic control positions is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with military experience as an air traffic controller have a slight advantage. The bureau predicts that employment of ATC specialists will grow around 3 percent through 2026, which is slower than average. Job growth is limited because evolving technology will allow individual controllers to manage more air traffic work.