How to Become an Air Traffic Controller [Do You Qualify?]

Do you have what it takes to thrive in a fast-paced aviation job where your actions and decisions can mean the difference between safety and tragedy for hundreds of people?

This time we’re not talking about pilot careers. Instead, today’s focus is on the people on the ground who oversee all those flights: air traffic controllers.

We will explore what the job entails, the process to become a controller, the pay, the schedule, and the qualifications (including an unexpected one that disqualifies many would-be controllers).

Is an ATC job the right fit for you or someone you know? It’s time to find out.

What does an air traffic controller do?

If you are a pilot, you’re already familiar with the general job description of an air traffic controller. These aviation industry professionals are responsible for monitoring and coordinating aircraft movements within their assigned sectors to maintain safe aircraft separation.

Depending on where the controller is stationed, they may be an en route controller handling flights in the air or a terminal controller dealing with takeoffs, landings, and aircraft within terminal airspace.

To be a great controller, you must have complex problem solving and decisive decision-making skills. The best controllers are also excellent at establishing and maintaining clear communication with pilots.

Pro Tip: Pick up a copy of ASA Say Again Please: Guide to Radio Communications for a review of radio comms best practices and watch Business Insider’s mini ATC documentary on what it takes to be a controller at the busy Atlanta airport to get a good baseline understanding of the role.

How many hours do Air Traffic Controllers work?

The FAA says that most ATC specialists work full time and often some overtime. In large facilities that operate continuously, specialists rotate through night, day, and evening shifts. They also work weekends and holidays. At smaller facilities, control towers are only staffed from dawn to dusk.

Due to the intense levels of focus required, the FAA limits controllers’ shifts to a maximum of 10 hours. Most shifts are 8 hours long with mandatory breaks every 2 hours.

How much do air traffic controllers make?

Air traffic controller jobs are challenging and stressful, but that complexity is reflected in the pay rates. The FAA’s Air Traffic Controller career information page says, “the median annual wage for air traffic control specialists is $138,556 in 2021.” They also receive a generous federal employee benefits package.

For the 2022 ATC trainee class, salaries started at $32,552 - $33,637 during FAA Academy training. Once the trainees completed Academy and were assigned to on-the-job training at a facility, their annual salary bumped up to $41,101 plus any applicable locality pay. Once trainees are fully certified, they will get another pay raise.

ATC specialists can qualify for a larger salary based on their facility location and the complexity of the airspace they manage. For example, controllers in Atlanta deal with substantially more flights than controllers at smaller regional airports, so the pay rates are higher in Atlanta.

How long does it take to be an air traffic controller?

Once entry-level controller candidates are accepted to the program, the FAA says they need to “complete required training courses at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and gain on-the-job experience before becoming certified professional controllers.”

The timeline to go from a new hire starting at the academy to becoming a fully certified professional controller (CPC) usually ranges from 6 months to 5 years depending on the individual candidate’s background and where they are stationed. Trainees at smaller VFR tower locations will be capable of solo work sooner than trainees at Centers or complex TRACONs. An aviation background can also shorten the necessary training time.

Pro Tip: Current controllers have shared that the process of taking the preliminary tests, passing the medical exams and security checks, plus getting scheduled for training usually takes a year from the time you apply, so don’t quit your current job when you get your initial ATC offer letter.

Is it hard to become an air traffic controller?

The FAA Academy, or air traffic controller school, in Oklahoma City is a 3-month program for terminal candidates and 6 months for en route. Former trainees have shared that the pass rate for academy is extremely low. Passing is not guaranteed, and sometimes the entire class fails. To pass the academy you need to speed a lot of time studying. 

How to become an air traffic controller without a degree

If you haven’t gone to college, you may be wondering if you still qualify for an air traffic control position. Good news: Although a bachelor’s degree is one of the minimum requirements, there are two accepted alternatives:

  • Three years of progressively responsible work experience -OR-
  • A combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years

Note: Your work experience does not have to be in an aviation field.

Pro Tip: Based on indeed.com’s research, due to the competitive nature of ATC slots, a degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program is not only good preparation, but is also a way to stand out in the large crowd of entry-level trainee air traffic control specialist applicants.

What qualifications do you need for air traffic controller?

The FAA’s minimum requirements for prospective air traffic controllers are:

  • Be a United States citizen
  • Be age 30 or under on the closing date of the application period (with limited exceptions)
  • Be registered for Selective Service, if applicable (required for males born after 12/31/1959)
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass a security investigation
  • Pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment test
  • Speak English clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment
  • Have three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a bachelor’s degree, or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years
  • Be willing to relocate to an FAA facility based on agency staffing needs

Air traffic controller age requirements

As you noticed in the above list, prospective controllers must be no older than 30 when they apply. This disqualifies and confuses many would-be candidates.

Why do air traffic controllers have to be under 31 years old? The reasoning behind this is that FAA safety regulations require controllers to stop working traffic at age 56, and to receive a federal pension, you need to have worked at least 25 years.

By making the maximum starting age cutoff 30, all new hire controllers have the potential to do their 25 years and earn a pension prior to reaching retirement age.

Pro Tip: The one publicly stated exception to the 30-year starting age cut off is for former military air traffic controllers. These candidates may apply even if they are older than 30.

How do I start an air traffic controller career?

  1. The first step to becoming an air traffic controller is to apply during one of the annual hiring windows. “Experienced hire” openings are posted at the beginning of the year and “off-the-street” hires for those without any aviation background open in the summer. The windows are usually only a few days long, so watch carefully and don’t miss it.
  2. Once you apply, if your application is being considered, you will be asked to take a biographical assessment (BA) which is essentially a pass/fail personality test that determines if you are a good fit for the position.
  3. Applicants who pass the BA take the Air Traffic Skills Assessment exam (known as the AT-SA). The test is pass/fail, but a higher score will place you in a higher ranked band, making you more likely to receive a job offer.
  4. The candidates with the highest AT-SA scores will receive a temporary offer letter (TOL).
  5. After you accept the TOL and turn it in to HR, you will move on to the clearance information letter (CIL). This letter contains the information you need to start obtaining your medical and security clearances. (The FAA is working to streamline this part of the onboarding process, but it may still take a while).
  6. You need to obtain both your medical and security clearances before you can receive a firm offer letter (FOL). The medical includes an FAA Class II medical exam, drug screen, and Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Test (MMPI2). Security clearance processing takes months and includes filling out an online questionnaire and getting fingerprinted.
  7. After HR receives your medical and security clearances, they can issue you a firm offer letter (FOL). If you have previous experience, you will get to create your facility preference rankings at this time. If you’re an off-the-street candidate, you will be given an academy start date.
  8. Off-the-street hires need to pass their 3-to-6-month long FAA Academy to get placed in a facility and move into on-the-job training.

Once you make it through Academy, celebrate your new career with a Read Back Correct Limited Edition Sam Lyons Print showing controllers at work in the tower. It’s perfect for hanging in your aviation-themed family room.

Helpful Reads for Future Air Traffic Controllers [And Pilots Who Communicate With Them]

It’s Your Turn

Are you an air traffic controller or do you know someone who is? We’d love to hear from you. What are the best parts of the job and which are the most challenging? If you could go back and do it all over, what advice would you give yourself? Would you still go into this career? Why or why not?

AtcCareerTraining

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