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How to Become a Air Traffic Controller

Ever wondered how planes coordinate in the air while traveling across continents and oceans? Without air traffic controllers, none of it would be possible. If you want to make sure pilots and passengers arrive at their destinations safely, then learning how to become an air traffic controller may be the perfect career path for you.

What Is an Air Traffic Controller?

An air traffic controller communicates important information to pilots to coordinate and regulate flight patterns and air traffic. A career in air traffic can include a few different types of air traffic controller roles: tower controllers, approach and depart controllers, and en route controllers.

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Air traffic controllers work at airports and air traffic facilities. They are experts in air traffic and factors that regulate the movement of aircraft to ensure the safety of pilots, crew, and passengers.

Landing and Takeoff Instructions

Air traffic controller specialists communicate with pilots about takeoff and landing. The control towers are the ones that ultimately permit individual aircraft to leave the gate, approach the tarmac, and take off to their destinations. This is a similar process for landing, when air traffic controllers typically authorize the exact timing of aircraft landings and gate arrivals.

Monitoring Aircraft in Flight

En-route controllers work at air traffic control facilities across the country, where they monitor specific areas of national airspace. Rather than working on landing and takeoff at airports, air traffic controllers at these facilities monitor and guide airspace traffic.

Controlling Traffic at Airports and Landing Fields

Besides coordinating exact aircraft departures and landings, air traffic control specialists also coordinate other traffic throughout the airport, including maintenance and baggage vehicles.

Essential Air Traffic Controller Skills

Complex Problem Solving

Even when all is well, air traffic control specialists have to think quickly and respond to the complex ripple effects that a small technical problem can have on international airspace traffic. Complex problem-solving skills are key to making sure specialists can resolve issues relatively quickly and with as little disruption as possible.

Clear Communication

Because one of an air traffic controller’s major responsibilities is communicating with pilots, it is extremely important they have strong and clear communication skills.

Strong Judgement and Decision Making

When problem-solving, air traffic controllers have to use a strong sense of judgment to guide their decision-making. Essentially, they have to weigh the potential costs and benefits of several options and make the best decision.

Air Traffic Controller Salaries and Job Outlook

Earning potential as an air traffic control specialist is high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary of an air traffic controller is $122,990. This is because air traffic controllers must be highly specialized and specifically trained.

The aviation industry, like most other industries in 2020, is facing a period of uncertainty. Commercial flying is down due to border closures and public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, cargo flights have not subsided.

Once aspiring air traffic controllers begin training at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy located in Oklahoma City, the only national training facility, they become specialized, sought-after professionals. Despite drops in air travel, someone with the extensive training needed to become an air traffic controller will be in demand.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

It takes anywhere from three to 4.5 years to become an air traffic controller. It all depends on which path you choose to follow.

Though a college degree isn’t technically required, it is highly recommended, especially since it is a highly competitive and desirable career field. Then, students must pass qualifying FAA exams and attend the FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City. The FAA regulates air traffic control across the country.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller: A Step by Step Guide

We’ve put together a step-by-step guide for what you should do to become an air traffic controller. Remember that there are a couple of different paths to get there. Consider the one that works best for you.

Step 1: Get an Education

The FAA recommends that aspiring air traffic controllers get an associate or a bachelor’s degree that is a non-engineering aviation degree. You can pursue this at an AT-CTI program at 36 different universities across the country.

Step 2: Get at Least Three Years of Progressively Responsible Experience

You can complete step two instead of or alongside step one. That is to say that a four-year bachelor’s degree program would account for at least three years of progressively responsible experience.

Step 3: Pass the FAA Qualifying Test

To enter an FAA training program, you first have to pass the FAA Air Traffic Selection and Training exam. Upon completion, students can apply to jobs, and then, to become fully certified, they must pass one of the training courses at the FAA Training Program.

Step 4: Complete a training course at the FAA Training Program

Depending on your educational background, you can complete a training course at the FAA Academy in two to five months.

Should You Become an Air Traffic Controller in 2020?

Understanding that the industry is in flux, air traffic controllers are highly specialized professionals with highly desirable expertise. Consider this step-by-step guide as you continue your research into this exciting career field.


What degree do you need for an air traffic controller?
An AT-CTI program within a two- or four-year degree is recommended. Otherwise, you can also enter the field with three years of progressively responsible work experience in the aviation field.
Is it stressful to be an air traffic controller?
Stress levels are subjective, so the answer to this question depends on how you handle stress. It is considered one of the most stressful jobs out there only because of the high level of concentration required to do it well.
How do I become an air traffic controller with no experience?
You can become an air traffic controller by completing a bachelor’s degree, an AT-CTI program, and an FAA Training program.
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