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How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

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Air traffic controllers are highly trained professionals responsible for the safe and smooth flow of aircraft between airports. They instruct pilots during take off and landing; update them on weather changes; use computer systems to monitor the altitude, speed and direction of an aircraft; and alert response teams during emergencies. Qualified controllers are American citizens who have completed an air traffic management program, passed background checks and completed training administered by the Federal Aviation Administration Academy.

Receive Training

The path to becoming an air traffic controller begins by pursuing an air traffic management program at an FAA-accredited institution. Graduates must then apply to the FAA Academy for further training. Applicants must be 31 years old or younger; satisfy medical and security checks; and pass a two-part pre-employment test. Individuals with relevant experience -- such as controllers who have worked in the military -- are exempt from completing an air traffic management course, so they can directly apply to the Academy.

Develop the Skills

To be well-rounded professionals, air traffic controllers must possess strong speaking, decision-making, math, concentration and organizational skills. When pilots request an emergency landing, a controller relies on his quick thinking and decision-making ability to, for instance, determine which runway to assign. To share this information clearly with the pilots, the controller must be a fluent English speaker. Prospective air traffic controllers must also possess the ability to concentrate for long periods without tiring and multitasking skills to simultaneously coordinate the movement of several flights.

FAA Training and Certification

After completing the FAA’s two- to five-month training program, controllers are posted to an air traffic control facility to work as developmental controllers. During this time, the trainees must obtain the FAA’s air tower operator certification to enhance their chances of securing promotions to positions of more responsibility. Certification applicants must be at least 18 years old and pass a skills evaluation test.

Get On

Experienced air traffic controllers who demonstrate strong leadership abilities can advance to become control tower supervisors. Because controllers are required to retire at 56 or as soon as they achieve 20 years’ work experience, many pursue a master’s degree in business administration or airport operations to become airport managers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, airport traffic controllers earned an average annual salary of $118,650 in 2013.

2016 Salary Information for Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers earned a median annual salary of $122,410 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, air traffic controllers earned a 25th percentile salary of $84,730, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $149,230, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 24,900 people were employed in the U.S. as air traffic controllers.

Number of Jobs for Air Traffic Controllers (by year)
Year Number of Jobs