How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

An air traffic controller is responsible for directing traffic in the air.

Working from the ground in various airports, they give planes and other aircraft permission to land and take off, approve flight plans, and make sure collisions are avoided.

If you have a passion for aviation, strong organizational skills, and work well under pressure, then it’s likely you will be successful as an air traffic controller.

While the main role of the air traffic controller is to prevent collisions, it’s also a part of their job to keep the airport running smoothly.

this means keeping delays to a minimum and making sure all flights can depart and arrive on time.

Education Requirements to Become an Air Traffic Controller

To become an air traffic controller, you will need to complete pre-employment exam at the FAA.

To do this you must first apply for an open position, then sit the exam.

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It takes around eight hours to complete.

To be selected to sit for this exam, you must have had aviation or military experience, or have completed a four year college degree, or have completed three years of work experience.

The fourth route to sit the pre-employment exam is to take an FAA approved course in aviation.

There are two year and four year courses that teach the fundamentals of aviation and air traffic control.

Entrance into these courses is competitive, but graduates have excellent job opportunities, and a very strong chance of being granted immediate employment.

Applicants who do not have any air traffic control experience must be under 30 years of age.

Those with a background in the military, or other aviation experience, are the exception to this rule.

After you pass the pre-employment exam, you’ll also need to undergo some physical and medical checks.

You must also be a US citizen.

After this you’ll head off to Oklahoma for 12 weeks of training, unless you are a graduate of the FAA approved air traffic control course, in this case you can bypass part of this training.

An air traffic controller can only communicate in two languages, the native language of the place in which they are working, or English.

Therefore, to work in an American airport you would need to speak English, in other countries you may need to learn a second language.

All pilots and air traffic controllers are required to speak English.

Air Traffic Controller Job Description

An air traffic controller, or ATC, can work for a large commercial airport, a military base, or for smaller private airports.

Airspace that is patrolled by an air traffic controller is referred to controlled airspace.

  • Giving aircrafts permission to take off and land
  • Monitoring radar and airspace to anticipate problems
  • Approving flight plans
  • Preventing collisions – known as separation
  • Providing pilots with information such as weather
  • Avoiding delays in the takeoff or landing of planes

Most air traffic controllers work 40 hours a week.

Being that airports are open 24 hours a day, most work a rotating roster and may need to work night shift.

Being alert all of the time can take its toll, this is a job that many find mentally exhausting.

Air Traffic Controller Salary and Career Path

Almost all air traffic controllers are employed by the FAA, or the Federal Aviation Administration, with the exception of those in the military or working for smaller airports.

Those employed with the FAA will start their career as developmental controllers, while they undergo on the job learning and further training.

After this period they are promoted to the position of air traffic controller.

Employment prospects for qualified air traffic controllers is strong.

With a high rate of those in the field currently retiring, the need to replace staff is driving recruitment.

Air traffic controllers may advance to become senior controllers, take up a position in staff management, or become trainers.

According to, the median salary for an air traffic controller is around $111,000 per year.

Those just starting out can expect to earn between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, while those in senior positions can expect to earn upwards of $161,000 a year.

If you have a love of aviation and are a quick thinker with a good grasp of logic, then working as an air traffic controller may be right for you.

Though at times it is a strenuous job, it also offers an excellent salary, as well as a stimulating working environment.

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