How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers often work in semi-dark rooms.
To become an air traffic controller, a person must be a U.S. citizen, pass medical and background checks, achieve a qualifying score on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pre-employment test, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy.
Controllers also must pass a physical exam each year and a job performance exam twice per year. In addition, they must pass periodic drug screenings.
Most applicants must take and pass the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT). It is an 8-hour, computer-based exam. Some of the characteristics tested include arithmetic, prioritization, planning, tolerance for high intensity, decisiveness, visualization, problem solving, and movement detection.
The FAA sets guidelines for schools to offer specific programs called the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative, or the AT-CTI program. AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that are designed to prepare students for a career in air traffic control. The curriculum is not standardized, but courses focus on subjects that are fundamental to aviation. Topics include aviation weather, airspace, clearances, reading maps, federal regulations, and other related topics.
Candidates who have a recommendation letter from their AT-CTI school are eligible to take the AT-SAT. Students typically take the exam before graduation but must have met their school’s specific requirements to get their recommendation. Once they pass the exam they are able to apply for air traffic controller vacancies through special vacancy announcements specifically for AT-CTI graduates. Applicants who pass the test and accept a job offer are then eligible to enroll in an intensive training course at the FAA Academy.
Air traffic controllers may also apply for positions through vacancy announcements made to the general public, when available. These vacancy announcements allow the public, with no special experience or education, to apply to become air traffic controllers. These applicants generally must have completed a 4-year degree, have equivalent progressive work experience, or have some combination of the two. Applicants from the general public should try to educate themselves along the lines of the AT-CTI and AT-SAT standards, to improve their chances of passing the exam.
Although general public vacancy announcements have contributed substantially to the numbers of new hires in the past, this path is expected to decline rapidly as a source of new candidates, according to the FAA.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Applicants who have only a high school education will need to have years of progressive work experience or a combination of experience and education. Work experience includes work as a commercial pilot, navigator, or flight dispatcher. Other work experience that requires knowledge of aviation topics, such as weather and flight regulations, may be accepted.
Candidates with previous air traffic control experience are automatically eligible to apply for air traffic controller positions. They do not need to take the FAA pre-employment test. There can be specific job postings for those who already have experience working as an air traffic controller, such as through the military.
All newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy. The FAA academy is located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The training usually lasts between 2 and 5 months, depending on the position and the applicant’s background.
After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers, until they complete all requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller. Developmental controllers begin their careers by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to positions within the control room that have more responsibility.
As the developmental controllers master various duties, they earn increases in pay and advance in their training. Generally, it takes new controllers 2 to 4 years to complete the on-the-job training that leads to full certification. Those with previous controller experience may take less time to become fully certified.
Trainees who fail to complete the Academy or their on-the-job training within a specified time limit are usually dismissed.
There are few opportunities for a controller to switch from an en route position to an airport position. However, within these categories, controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All air traffic controllers must hold an Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate or be appropriately qualified and supervised as stated in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations part 65. They must be at least 18 years old, fluent in English, and comply with all knowledge and skill requirements.
Communication skills. Air traffic controllers must be able to give clear, concise instructions, listen carefully to pilot’s requests, and respond by speaking clearly.
Concentration skills. Controllers must be able to concentrate in a room where multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with several pilots at the same time.
Decision-making skills. Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude or heading to avoid poor weather, the controller must respond quickly, so that the plane can operate safely.
Math skills. Controllers must be able to do arithmetic accurately and quickly. They often need to compute speed, time, and distance problems, and recommend heading and altitude changes.
Organizational skills. Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights. Controllers need to be able to prioritize tasks, as they may be required to guide several pilots at the same time.
Problem-solving skills. Controllers must be able to understand complex situations, such as the impact of changing weather patterns on a plane’s flight path. Controllers must be able to review important information and provide pilots with an appropriate solution.
To be employed by the FAA, air traffic controllers who do not have prior experience must begin their careers before they reach their 31st birthday. Private air traffic controllers must hold an appropriate medical certificate. Air traffic controllers may have to undergo background checks and drug screenings.