How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Air Traffic Controller Key Stats
Avg. Salary / year $99,510
Avg. Pay / hour $47.84
Education 4+ Years
Job Outlook 3.6%

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.

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.

BLSThe below information is based on the 2021 BLS national averages.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary


Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$103,940
Michigan- NA -
New Hampshire$150,490
New Mexico$119,210
North Dakota$94,990
South Carolina$95,010
West Virginia$76,700

The top earning state in the field is Virginia, where the average salary is $152,450.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

Virginia - $152,450
New Hampshire - $150,490
Illinois - $145,470
Georgia - $144,840
California - $141,200
* Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Air Traffic Controllers, OCC Code 53-2021, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an air traffic controller?

An air traffic controller is a highly trained professional who is responsible for directing an aircraft safely through a particular flight path.

Air traffic controllers work within the global air traffic control system.

Candidates should complete a complex training program and various tests to be assigned to the job.

Working as an air traffic controller involves dealing with a lot of stress.

Professionals should be able to multitask, make decisions fast, have excellent communication and problem-solving skills.

There are a few different types of air traffic controllers: aerodrome controller, ground control, flight data/clearance controller, approach controller, and local or tower control.

In the past, an air traffic controller was purely a government position.

It has become a public position in the majority of countries nowadays, however, in some places only the military can be assigned to the position.

How much do air traffic controllers make?

In the United States, air traffic controllers make on average $86.000 per year.

The annual salary would typically start from $70.500.

However, professionals can make $152.000 and even more per year.

An entry-level air traffic controller can expect to earn about $34 per hour, while a mid-level controller can make around $41 hourly.

The salary of an air traffic controller increases every time he completes a new training phase.

The top-paying cities for this profession are San Francisco, New York, and Houston.

How much does it cost to become an air traffic controller?

The educational requirements would vary depending on the country.

However, in most of the cases, there can be only one career path – you would have to acquire an air traffic management degree, pass qualifying tests, and complete a training course.

A CTI associate’s degree can cost you about $10.000 for 60 credits.

You would have to pay around $3.000 per semester for accommodation (as well as textbooks, simulators, and so on).

Non-residents would have to pay up to $30.000 for a degree.

What is the demand for air traffic controllers?

The job market for air traffic controllers is expected to grow by 3.6% (between 2016 and 2016).

That means that there will be a decreased demand for controllers.

There are certain budget constraints that limit the number of employed air traffic controllers.

However, the main problem for the candidates is the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

It is going to transform the radar-based system to a satellite-based one.

Controllers will be able to manage greater amounts of traffic, thus there will be no need for a lot of specialists.

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

One of the ways of becoming an air traffic controller is by joining the military.

In such a case, career-training already becomes part of your service.

You can also apply to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Academy.

The academy requires you to have a completion of a 4-year college program or at least 3 years of full-time work experience in any field.

The training at the FAA Academy will take another few years.

You can also attend a CTI aviation program and acquire a degree in 2 years.

Jamie Willis
Career Specialist at BecomeopediaHi, my name is Jamie Willis, and I have been helping students find their perfect internships and education paths for the last ten years. It is a passion of mine, and there really is nothing better than seeing students of mine succeed with further studies.