How to Become an
Air Traffic Controller

Essential Education, Skills, and Job Interview Prep

Air traffic control needs someone to take care of movements from the ground. Airplanes and air transport vehicles, including the passengers, remain safe thanks to air traffic controllers. This is your guide on how to become an air traffic controller and all the responsibilities that come with the job.

There is a lot to learn as an air traffic controller because you serve as an extra pair of eyes to a pilot from the ground. Therefore, acquiring the right skills through reliable education and job training is a sure path to success.

What Is an Air Traffic Controller?

An air traffic control specialist, or simply air traffic controller, manages the movement of aircraft. This is to ensure they are keeping safe distances from one another. This usually takes place in an airport because of the number of flights coming in and out every day.

A good traffic flow of aircraft must be maintained to make sure that everyone is safe in the air and on the ground. Air traffic controllers also ensure a smooth flow of ground traffic at airport runways. They make sure that planes do not try to land in the same place at the same time.

Air Traffic Controller Salary and Job Outlook

Being a relatively difficult job, an air traffic controller earns a median salary of $130,420, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The salary increases depending on the training program and the years of experience that an air traffic controller acquires.

The BLS also states that the job outlook for air traffic controllers is slightly lower than average at one percent growth by 2029. There is tight competition within the industry, especially since job openings are lower in number compared to other jobs. The BLS also reports that people with a military background have an edge over other candidates.


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Entry-Level Air Traffic Controller Job Requirements

You can expect an entry-level average salary of $90,580 per year as an air traffic controller, according to PayScale. Most would start at $79,585, which already includes bonuses and overtime pay. This salary is for those with less than one year of experience.

Aside from your education, you need to make sure that you have excellent transport and operations management skills. Communication skills are also crucial because you will be talking to pilots and other staff every day.

Common Air Traffic Controller Job Interview Questions

To make sure that you will ace your job interview for an air traffic controller position, you need to demonstrate strong skills and a good work ethic. Below are some of the frequently asked questions during an air traffic controller job interview.

  • Do you have any experience working as an air traffic controller?
  • Are you able to work under pressure, and how good are you at handling stressful situations?
  • What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses, and how can you apply them to the job?
  • Rate your communication skills and how would you use them in your capacity as an air traffic controller.
  • Describe a moment where you solved a problem on the spot.

What Degree Should I Get to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

The minimum education requirement to be an air traffic controller is an associate degree. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States is primarily responsible for overseeing air traffic control education. The FAA regulates the schools that provide education for air traffic controllers.

Associate Degree in Air Traffic Control

An Associate Degree in Air Traffic Control is one of the minimum requirements to qualify for the job. The usual program offered, as mandated by the FAA, is composed of a total of 60 credits. This commonly includes topics on communication, aerodynamics, aircraft, air traffic, and more.

Bachelor’s Degree in Air Traffic Control

You can take up a Bachelor’s Degree in Air Traffic Control in any of the approved schools of the FAA. Under the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), you will need to take a non-engineering aviation course. This would take around two to four years, depending on the school that you will apply for.

Master’s Degree in Aviation Management

If you are looking to further your studies, then you can get a Master’s Degree in Aviation Management. This is typically pursued by those with some experience in air traffic control. Usually, a master’s degree is the best choice if you want a higher position in the industry.

Air Traffic Control Certification

Various kinds of certifications are available for air traffic controllers. To become a certified professional controller, you must take a certification exam by the FAA. The most basic certificate is the Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate.

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

An air traffic controller fulfills many duties in the field. Upon taking this job, you must be aware of your duties so that everything will run smoothly. With this, below are some of the primary duties that you have to uphold throughout your job.

Monitors Aircraft Movement

It is your responsibility to monitor the traffic or aircraft in the air and on the ground. You will also direct their movements to make sure that the aircraft will move smoothly. You are also the one in charge of controlling the traffic on airport runways.

Presents Landing Instructions

Air traffic controllers issue landing and takeoff instructions to the pilots. You are the one handling the schedules of the flights. One of your concerns is to make sure that there are no simultaneous landings and takeoffs.

Feeds Pilots Critical Information

Aside from the information on flights and landings and takeoffs, you will give pilots other essential details needed for air travel. Some of the most critical details that pilots would need are weather conditions, runway closures, and other emergency conditions.

Essential Air Traffic Controller Skills

Concentration, communication, and fast decision-making skills are important to succeed as an air traffic controller. These skills could make your career flourish, especially if you can prove that you are checking all the right boxes.

Concentration and Organization

Your work as an air traffic controller requires that you are focused on your specific task at the time. Several conversations are happening at once inside an air traffic control facility, so you might talk over a lot of people. Being able to concentrate helps ensure that you are feeding the right information to the right people.

Being organized is also important because you are handling flight coordinates and schedules. There are a lot of tasks to handle at once, so you must be able to decide which tasks to prioritize and which ones to delegate or do later.

Math and Problem-Solving

Math skills are a must to be a reliable air traffic controller. Sometimes, you have to compute coordinates and feed them to the pilots on the spot. Some of these computations include information on speeds, distances, time, and altitudes.

The capability to solve problems complements the above. You make sense of complicated situations, sometimes by numbers, to inform your pilots. For instance, if a certain flight path experiences weather turbulence, then you can advise a change of path.

Decision-Making and Communication

Air traffic controllers must not second-guess decisions. For every issue during the flight, you are expected to come up with a solid decision and respond as fast as you can.

You will need communication skills to coordinate with your pilot, especially when handling difficult decisions. Instructions and commands must be clear, and you must also listen well to requests. One of the main requirements is to have good English speaking skills to foster a clear and distinct exchange of instructions.

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

To be an air traffic controller, you must take your study seriously. Everything you will learn is necessary for your training. You are also expected to learn practical skills on the job and pass certification exams. Becoming a traffic controller might be a long journey, but perseverance is key.


Complete an Associate or Bachelor’s Degree

One of the minimum requirements to be an air traffic controller is an associate degree or bachelor’s degree. This must be completed at an institution that is accredited by the FAA. Through the program, you will build a foundation by learning the pertinent skills and knowledge for the job.


On-the-Job Training or Gain Work Experience

Air traffic controllers get their training through internships or work experience. Typically, it takes about three years of work experience to qualify for the job. It is important to ensure that your work experience yields good results so you can have good references in the future.


Study for the Certification Exam

You should at least pass the certification exam for Air Traffic Control Tower Operator conducted by the FAA. The exam would show your capability at handling air traffic and establish your competence. The certification exam is mandated by the Federal Law to guarantee that the pool of air traffic control talents is reliable and competent.


Pass Security Investigation

Security is a must for the FAA, especially since the aviation industry has faced a lot of safety threats over the years. Because your job is about controlling flight movements, the authorities need to ensure that you are a legitimate candidate. You have to pass a security investigation and a background check for an air traffic controller job.


Pass the Pre-Employment Test

Regardless of your qualification and certification, you still need to take a test when applying for an air traffic controller position. The pre-employment exam is conducted to gauge your competency. The competition is tight, so you can expect the exam to be difficult. After the exam, you can continue your training at an FAA facility.

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

It takes about five to eight years to become an air traffic controller. An associate or bachelor’s degree takes about two to four years to complete. You would then need two to five months in the FAA facility for your training once you qualify. Then, it would take another two to four years of training on the job to earn your certificate.

Should You Become an Air Traffic Controller in 2021?

Yes, you should become an air traffic controller in 2021. Despite seeing a slower-than-average job outlook, there are still job openings in this air traffic control. With economies slowly reviving after the pandemic, you can expect the airline industry to go back to the way it was in the next few years.

As it will take a while to complete your studies and training, now is a good time to start. The competition for an air traffic controller career is stiff, so you need to study as early as possible to get the training that you need.

Air Traffic Controller FAQ

How do I become an air traffic controller?

You need to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree in any accredited institution by the FAA. After that, you will acquire training with the FAA, once you make it past the assessment. Then, you will undergo on-the-job training or gain at least three years of work experience to earn your certification.

Does it take long to become an air traffic controller?

It takes about five to eight years to become an air traffic controller. However, this estimation spans education, training, and certification. The length would depend on how fast you can acquire the skills that you need to become an air traffic controller.

What are the skills that I need to learn to become an air traffic controller?

Communication and decision-making skills are a must for air traffic control because you are feeding information and details to your pilot. Other than this, you must have reliable math skills to solve for coordinates or altitudes on the spot. You must also be good at solving problems and quickly giving instructions.

Is being an air traffic controller a difficult job?

It is difficult to be an air traffic controller because you are responsible for the safety and security of a lot of people. Therefore, you need to take your training seriously and always keep a clear and concentrated mind while on the job.

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