How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
As they gain experience, air traffic controllers move to positions in the control room that have more responsibility.
There are several different paths to becoming an air traffic controller. Candidates typically need an associate's or bachelor’s degree through a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program, several years of progressively responsible work experience, or a combination of education and experience.
In addition, prospective air traffic controllers must be U.S. citizens and must pass a medical evaluation, background check, and FAA preemployment tests, including the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA). They also must complete a training course at the FAA Academy and apply before the FAA's age cutoff.
Once hired, controllers typically complete on-the-job training that lasts more than 12 months. They also must pass a physical exam each year, a job performance exam twice a year, and periodic drug screenings.
Air traffic controllers typically need an associate's or a bachelor's degree. To qualify with an associate's degree, candidates must complete their studies in an AT-CTI program. A bachelor's degree may be in any field, including transportation, business, or engineering.
The FAA sets guidelines for schools that offer 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, including airspace, clearances, chart reading, and federal regulations.
Most newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. The length of training varies with the candidate’s background. Candidates must apply before the FAA's age cutoff.
After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they complete 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 may advance to positions within the control room that have more responsibility.
With additional training, controllers may switch from one area of specialization to another. For example, a controller may complete training to transfer from working in an en route center to an airport tower.
Air traffic controllers sometimes qualify through work experience instead of a degree. Candidates either need up to 3 years of progressively responsible generalized work experience that demonstrates the potential for learning and performing air traffic control work or must have specialized work experience in a military or civilian air traffic control facility.
Air traffic controllers who learn their skills in the military are eligible to become civilian air traffic controllers even if their age exceeds the FAA cutoff for applicants.
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.
Communication skills. Air traffic controllers must be able to give clear, concise instructions, listen carefully to pilots’ requests, and respond by speaking clearly in English.
Decision-making skills. Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude to avoid poor weather, the controller must respond quickly to ensure the aircraft’s safety.
Detail oriented. Controllers must be able to concentrate while multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with different pilots at the same time.
Math skills. Controllers must be able to do arithmetic accurately and quickly. They often need to compute speeds, times, and distances, and they recommend heading and altitude changes.
Organizational skills. Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights and to prioritize tasks, because they may be required to guide several pilots at the same time.
Problem-solving skills. Controllers must be able to understand complex situations, review changing circumstances, and provide pilots with appropriate alternatives.
Teamwork. Controllers must be able to work as members of a team, cooperating with and assisting others in and around their area of responsibility.