Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of aircraft to maintain safe distances between them.

Duties

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.

The following are examples of types of air traffic controllers:

Tower controllers direct 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 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.

En route controllers monitor 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.

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Work Environment

Air traffic controllers held about 24,300 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of air traffic controllers were as follows:

Federal government 92%
Support activities for air transportation 5
Professional, scientific, and technical services                                  0

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 semidark 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.

Work Schedules

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.

Education and Training

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.

Education

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.

Training

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.

As the developmental controllers master various duties, they earn increases in pay and advance in their training. Those with previous controller experience may take less time to become fully certified.

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.

Personality and Interests

Air traffic controllers typically have an interest in the Persuading and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as an air traffic controller, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Air traffic controllers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Air traffic controllers must be able to give clear, concise instructions, listen carefully to pilot’s requests, and respond by speaking clearly.

Concentration skills. 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.

Decision-making skills. Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude or heading to avoid poor weather, the controller must respond quickly, so that the plane can operate safely.

Math skills. Controllers must be able to do arithmetic accurately and quickly. They often need to compute speed, time, and distance problems, and recommend heading and altitude changes.

Organizational skills. Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights. Controllers need to be able to prioritize tasks, as they may be required to guide several pilots at the same time.

Problem-solving skills. 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 an appropriate solution.

Pay

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.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for air traffic controllers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government $127,810
Professional, scientific, and technical services                                         102,520
Support activities for air transportation 78,500

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.

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 more normal work schedules.

Job Outlook

Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to show little or no change from 2018 to 2028.

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.

Job Prospects

Competition for air traffic controller jobs is expected to be very strong, with many people applying for a relatively small number of jobs. Those with military experience as an air traffic controller may have an advantage.

Most employment opportunities will result from the need to replace workers who are expected to retire or leave the occupation.

For More Information

For more information about air traffic controllers, visit

Federal Aviation Administration

National Air Traffic Controllers Association

For more information about biodata tests, visit

U.S. Office of Personnel Management

 

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