So, You Want to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

airport with air traffic controller
May 3, 2021
So, You Want to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology is a prominent voice in the aviation space. These blogs are for informational purposes only and are meant to spark discussions within the aviation industry on a variety of topics.

If you’re interested in a future in the aviation industry, there are many paths you can take. One of the most exciting and fulfilling is becoming an air traffic controller. Air traffic controllers are key players in the process of ensuring that air travel happens smoothly and that all pilots, passengers, and crew members remain safe when they fly. If you are interested in becoming involved in the aviation industry and think that air traffic control might be the right field for you, read on. You can learn what an air traffic controller is, what steps you need to take to become one, and what possible paths you can expect to take once you've completed all the necessary training to become an air traffic controller.

What is an Air Traffic Controller?

Air traffic controllers are the professionals in charge of directing airplane traffic in the air and keeping all aircraft and people inside them safe. Air traffic controllers have extensive training learning how to direct multiple planes to their destinations safely — at the same time). They can work in one of three locations: in a glass room in the control tower at the airport, in a control center not located at an airport (there are 24 across the US), or in a radar room that is also located in a control tower at an airport.

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Air traffic controllers are the directors of traffic in the sky. They ensure that all flights taxi, take off, fly, and land smoothly wherever they're going. They work on ensuring that multiple planes can fly safely at once. It is a zero margin of error job, which means that no air traffic controller can make mistakes — the stakes are too high. For that reason, the training to be an air traffic controller is intensive, and the minimum requirements to be accepted into training are plentiful. Air traffic controllers don't just sit in a glass tower and help direct planes when they take off, even though that's when most passengers encounter or see air traffic control. Here is a list of more things that air traffic controllers do on the job:

  • Tower Controller: Controllers who work in towers or airdromes guide aircraft within the space of an airport. This includes on the runway and for takeoff. Aircraft controllers in towers use visual observation and radar to help ensure planes get in and out smoothly.
  • Flight Data Controller: Some air traffic controllers issue flight plan clearances before a plane takes off. These air traffic controllers only work with departing aircraft.
  • Ground Control: Ground controllers only work with aircraft on the ground, which means once they've landed or when they're taxiing to take off.
  • Approach Control: Approach controllers direct aircraft that are approaching airports and need directions for landing.
  • Transference of Control: Aircraft controllers must handle the transferring of control of an aircraft they are directing when the aircraft moves out of the space they are directly in control of monitoring.
  • Emergency Direction: When there is an air emergency, air traffic controllers are knowledgeable in emergency protocol to help direct the pilot steer a plane to safety as quickly and easily as possible. They must also communicate with airports about the status of a plane experiencing an emergency.
  • Pilot Instruction: All air traffic controllers may be contacted by pilots who need assistance. Air traffic controllers can instruct pilots on a variety of issues, including severe weather, runway issues, and more.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

At any moment, there are more than 14,000 air traffic controllers working to direct traffic in the sky and at airports. In order to become one of them, you need to go through the necessary education and training so you are prepared to do this intense, serious work. In order to actually work in the field, you must complete the required training courses at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) academy in Oklahoma City, OK. Here are the minimum requirements to be accepted to the FAA training academy so you can eventually work as an air traffic controller, as well as the training steps you'll have to go through in order to be prepared to hold the job.

Minimum Requirements for an Air Traffic Control Training Program

To become an air traffic controller, below are the minimum requirements to work in the United States.

  • Be a U.S. citizen.
  • Be under 30 years of age when you first apply for the academy.
  • Speak English clearly enough to understand and give commands.
  • Have either: held three years at a job, earned a bachelor's degree, or done enough of a combination of post-secondary education and work that it totals at least three years of experience.
  • Pass a medical exam.
  • Pass a security background investigation.
  • Be willing to move where the FAA places you for a job.

Training Steps to Becoming an Air Traffic Controller

If you meet the above requirements to complete the required FAA training course, then you may be considering pursuing this as a professional path. If you decide you want to become an air traffic controller, here’s what your path may look like:

  • Work or go to school. The first step in training is to hold three years at the same job, to get a bachelor’s degree, or to do some combination of post-secondary education and work that totals three years, as mentioned in the requirements above.
  • Attend an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI Program). The FAA has created partnerships with several educational institutions to start the process of preparing people for a job in air traffic control. Enroll in and complete one of these programs to begin your formal training.
  • Complete the FAA training program. If you meet the minimum requirements and pass all the exams listed above, you can attend an official FAA training program. You'll have to complete the training program in order to be considered prepared for a career in air traffic control in the real world.
  • Apply for an air traffic control job and interview for the position. 

Congrats! You've completed the FAA Air Traffic Control Training Program. Now you are ready to control air traffic in the real world and begin working in aviation.

The FAA is the main air traffic control employer in the country, and they'll have a variety of jobs available for different experience levels throughout the country. You will most likely have to move wherever the FAA places you. The FAA announces job openings once a year for a limited window, so be prepared to apply then.

FAQs About Working as An Air Traffic Controller

Working as an air traffic controller is a very specialized, unique job. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the work, so you can know what you're getting into before deciding whether or not this path is the right one for you.


Is There an Age Limit for Working as an Air Traffic Controller?

Yes, the FAA requires you to apply for air traffic controller training before your 31st birthday. They also require you to retire at the age of 56. The one exception to the above limits is that former military air traffic controllers are allowed to begin work with the FAA even if they are older than 31.

Do Air Traffic Controllers Work 24 Hours Per Day, Seven Days Per Week?

Yes, there are always air traffic controllers at work. However, this does not necessarily mean that you will work overnight. At large facilities and in high traffic areas, there are day, evening, and night shifts, as well as shifts that are specialized for holidays and weekends. So, you may end up working whatever schedule is best suited for you. If you work at a smaller facility or lower traffic area, your hours may be more aligned with dawn to dusk (if airports only fly planes during the daylight hours).

What Qualities Make Someone Well-Suited to Become an Air Traffic Controller?

Being an air traffic controller is not for just anybody. Someone well-suited to be an air traffic controller has:

  • High attention to detail.
  • Long attention span.
  • Ability to stay calm under pressure.
  • Ability to make quick decisions under stress.
  • The communication skills to send clear messages to a wide variety of people.
  • Math and problem-solving skills, to easily calculate and share info with pilots and to quickly determine the best course of action if an aircraft has any issues.
  • Desire to study and learn — and who's willing to go through the rigorous training necessary to become an air traffic controller.


Study to Become an Air Traffic Controller Today

Now that you know what being an air traffic controller entails and what steps you need to take to become one, and you think it's a job that you're well suited for, consider beginning your path to studying air traffic control.

While Spartan College doesn’t offer this program, we invite you to explore other aviation-industry training that we offer. Click here to learn more about our programs.

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