How To Become an Air Traffic Controller

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: July 21, 2021  •  8 min read  •  Transportation
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Are you thinking about becoming an air traffic controller? If so, it’s important to understand more about this position and what it entails.

There are many careers to choose from, and this can be a great option. However, it’s not the right career for everybody. Let’s look at the job duties of an air traffic controller and the steps for entering this career choice.

How To Become an Air Traffic Controller

Job Duties of an Air Traffic Controller

As an air traffic controller, you will be in charge of moving air traffic and guiding pilots. In addition, you will work with pilots through landing and takeoff to ensure things remain safe.

Air traffic controllers manage communications and help to control ground traffic at airports. This includes maintenance employees and baggage vehicles. Some of the duties of an air traffic controller include:

You can become one of three different types of air traffic controllers. A tower controller will direct the movement of aircraft and other vehicles on the runways and taxiways. If you become an En route controller, you will work with aircraft after they have left the airport’s airspace.

Those deciding to become an approach and depart controller will work with aircraft as it travels into the surrounding airspace of the airport. All of these positions are responsible for the safety of the aircraft and the airport.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller in 6 Steps

Step #1 – Do well in High School

It’s important to do well in high school before you start working on the next steps to becoming an air traffic controller. Getting good grades in math is vital as this will be important to your career. Math and science courses are the most important, but you want to keep your GPA high.

Step #2 – Meet the Necessary Requirements

You will need to meet the requirements to become an air traffic controller. In the United States, you must be a U.S. citizen. It’s also necessary to pass a security investigation before you can work in this field.

A medical examination will also be necessary when you apply for an air traffic controller job. They want to make sure you’re fit enough, physically and mentally.

Air traffic controllers need to be 30 years of age or under when they apply. If you’re above 30, you may be disqualified from working in this career.

Step #3 – Complete CTI School

A CTI (Collegiate Training Initiative) school will provide you with the right training to become an air traffic controller. This type of school teaches you everything you need to know to be successful in this career path.

Some areas may not have this type of school. If you cannot find a CTI school near you, it might be necessary to relocate. You can earn a two-year or four-year degree from a CTI school. Once you graduate, you’ll be ready to work as an air traffic controller.

Step #4 – Get FAA Certified

You must become certified by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to work as an air traffic controller. It’s required that you pass the necessary exams to show you understand the job. Once you’ve passed the exams, you will need to go through another training program. This is often called the FAA Academy.

Step #5 – Complete FAA Training

The FAA Academy will complete your training before you can enter this career. However, if you went to the right type of school, you might be able to skip some of the more basic courses.

Finishing this training will take two to five months. However, you will still need to go through on-the-job training to gain full certification once you’re done. Therefore, your on-the-job training will likely take two to four years to complete.

Trainees will need to learn how to look for weather patterns and read maps properly. You will also need to learn the different federal regulations for airspace allowance. FAA training courses are incredibly thorough, and you will need to do well to succeed as an air traffic controller.

Step #6 – Find a Job

Once you’ve completed your training, you will be ready to work as an air traffic controller. Many employees will work for the same company they did their on-the-job training with. However, you might be able to find a higher-paying job with another company.

It’s common for air traffic controllers to relocate to fill open positions. It may not be a fast process, but finding your first job is an important step.

Top Skills for Air Traffic Controllers

If you want to be an air traffic controller, it’s important to develop the right skills. The top skills for this career include:

If you want to enter into this career, make sure you have, or you develop these key skills.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Air Traffic Controller

What is the average salary for an air traffic controller?

As an air traffic controller, you will likely make an average salary of about $47,775. However, the salary range does go from about $14K to about $130K per year. The lower end represents those working part-time, while the higher end is more specialized and experienced air traffic controllers.

The location of your facility, the complexity of the flight path, and your actual employer will determine your actual salary. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Department of Transportation are two of the highest-paying employers for air traffic controllers.

By far, Washington D.C. has the highest average salary at about $155K per year. Yuma, Arizona, is next on the list at about $82K per year, with Fort Rucker and Fort Campbell following behind.

How long will it take me to become an air traffic controller?

There are many steps you will have to complete along the way to becoming an air traffic controller. First, you will need three years of experience working in aviation or a related field. This requirement can be met by getting a bachelor’s degree, however.

Getting your degree will take about four years. Then, you have to complete the FAA Academy, which takes two to five months to finish. Once you’ve completed the education, you will need two to four years of training on the job to become fully certified.

It’s possible to become fully certified as an air traffic controller in five years. However, it will likely take eight or more years for most.

Do I need a degree to become an air traffic controller?

No. You can become an air traffic controller with a high school diploma and experience in the aviation industry. Most air traffic controllers will get an associate’s degree, and some will get a bachelor’s degree.

Is the job of an air traffic controller growing?

Yes, but not by much. It’s expected to grow by about 1% over the next ten years. This is slower than the average of all occupations.

What type of hours do air traffic controllers work?

It’s common for air traffic controllers to work full time. The FAA regulates the number of hours you can work, however. Air traffic controllers are never permitted to work more than 10 hours straight. They can also never have less than 9 hours between shifts.

Most air traffic controllers will work a 40-hour week. They keep rather normal shift hours. You won’t have to worry about working long shifts as an air traffic controller with FAA regulations.

How do I find a job as an air traffic controller?

The FAA most often employs air traffic controllers. They post all open jobs on the USAJOBS website. While there are a few other employers, this is the main and largest employer. Therefore, most air traffic controllers will work for the FAA.

Is Becoming an Air Traffic Controller Right for You?

Working as an air traffic controller can offer a very exciting career. You will work directly with pilots to keep the airport and everybody there safe. It’s a very important job and requires the right training.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.