Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe distances between them. While this job is stressful, more than 24,300 people choose to have this high-paying career.
Their primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft 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.
Job Affirmations for Air Traffic Controllers
- My work helps to make air travel safe.
- I am calm in the face of chaos.
- I provide a valuable service to others.
- I communicate clearly and decisively.
- My work connects people to places they love.
- I manage my stress with ease.
- I stay focused and alert at all times.
- When I am focused people are safe.
- I have highly specialized skills and abilities.
1. Air Traffic Controllers Put Safety First
Keeping people safe in the air means that air traffic controllers must:
- 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
Controllers usually manage up to 25 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.
2. There is More Than One Type of Air Traffic Controller
This type of air traffic controller directs the movement of vehicles, including aircraft, on runways and taxiways.
They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other traffic on the runways and in other parts of the airport.
Most work from control towers, observing the traffic they control. Tower controllers manage traffic from the airport to a radius of 3 to 30 miles out.
Approach and Departure Controllers
These professionals ensure that aircraft traveling within an airport’s airspace maintain minimum separation for safety. They give clearances to enter controlled airspace and hand off control of aircraft to en route controllers.
Approach and departure controllers use radar equipment to monitor flight paths and work in buildings known as Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs).
They also inform pilots about weather conditions and other critical notices. Terminal approach controllers assist the aircraft until it reaches the edge of the facility’s airspace, usually about 20 to 50 miles from the airport and up to about 17,000 feet in the air.
This type of air traffic controller monitors aircraft once they leave an airport’s airspace. They work at air route traffic control centers located throughout the country, which typically are not located at airports.
Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and air traffic in the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches and flies through a center’s airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route.
They may adjust the flight path of aircraft to avoid collisions and for safety in general. Route controllers direct the aircraft for the bulk of the flight before handing to terminal approach controllers.
Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center, where they monitor traffic within the entire national airspace.
When they identify a bottleneck, they provide instructions to other controllers, helping to prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airports and for en route controllers.
3. Most of Them Work for the Federal Government
Air traffic controllers held about 24,300 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of air traffic controllers were:
|Support activities for air transportation||5%|
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.
4. Some Air Traffic Controllers Work in the Semi-dark
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.
Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. The FAA regulates the hours that an air traffic controller may work. Controllers may not work more than 10 straight hours during a shift and must have 9 hours’ rest before their next shift.
Controllers may rotate shifts among day, evening, and night, because major control facilities operate continuously.
Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that do not operate on a 24-hour basis. Controllers at these airports may have standard work schedules.
5. This High-stress Job Has an Early Retirement Age — 56
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.
6. There are Several Education Routes You Can Take to Get This Job
There are several ways to become an air traffic controller. A candidate must have one of the following:
- 3 years of progressively responsible work experience
- a bachelor’s degree
- a combination of postsecondary education and work experience totaling three years
- a degree through an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program.
- be a U.S. citizen;
- pass a medical evaluation, including drug screening, and background checks;
- pass the FAA pre-employment 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).
7. Personality and Age are Major Factors
Candidates for this job have to pass a biographical assessment, also known as a biodata test. This 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.
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.
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.
There are opportunities for a controller to switch from one position to another, provided that additional training is completed. For example, a controller may transfer from an en route position to an airport tower position with additional Academy training.
Within both of these positions, controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Applicants may need to have up to 3 years of progressively responsible generalized work experience in any occupation, or a combination of work experience and college education. More work experience is necessary to substitute for less postsecondary education.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All air traffic controllers must hold an Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate or be appropriately qualified and supervised as stated in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 65. They must be at least 18 years old, fluent in English, and comply with all knowledge and skill requirements.
8. Job Skills for Success Include Concentration and Math
Air traffic controllers must be able to give clear, concise instructions, listen carefully to pilots’ requests, and respond by speaking clearly in English.
Controllers must be able to concentrate in a room where multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with several pilots at the same time.
Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude to avoid poor weather, the controller must respond quickly so that the plane can operate safely.
Controllers must be able to do arithmetic accurately and quickly. They often need to compute speeds, times, and distances, and they recommend heading and altitude changes.
Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights. Controllers need to be able to prioritize tasks, because they may be required to guide several pilots at the same time.
Controllers must be able to understand complex situations, such as the impact of changing weather patterns on a plane’s flight path. Controllers must be able to review important information and provide pilots with appropriate solutions.
9. An Air Traffic Controller Salary is Sky High
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $124,540 in May 2018. 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 $68,090, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $178,650.
In May 2018, the median annual wages for air traffic controllers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||97,690|
|Support activities for air transportation||80,750|
The salaries for development controllers increase as they complete successive levels of training. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the salaries for more advanced controllers who have completed on-the-job training varies with the location of the facility, the complexity of the flight paths, and other factors.
A full explanation of the pay ranges for air traffic controllers can be found on the FAA Aviation Careers Page.
10. Air Traffic Controller Resume Sample
11. More Resources
For more information about air traffic controllers, visit
For more information about biodata tests, visitAir Traffic Controller.