Air Traffic Controller Careers

Significant Points

  • The vast majority of air traffic controllers are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency of the Federal Government.
  • Applicants without prior air traffic control experience must be 30 years of age or younger.
  • Replacement needs will continue to account for most job openings, reflecting the large number of air traffic controllers who will be eligible to retire over the next decade.
  • Competition for jobs will remain keen.

Nature of the Work

The National Airspace System (NAS) is a vast network of people and equipment that ensures the safe operation of commercial and private aircraft. Air traffic controllers work within the NAS to coordinate the movement of air traffic to make certain that planes stay a safe distance apart. Their immediate concern is safety, but controllers also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic through designated airspaces; others regulate airport arrivals and departures.

Terminal controllers watch over all planes traveling in an airport's airspace. Their main responsibility is to organize the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport. They work in either the control tower or the terminal radar approach control (TRACON) room or building. Relying on visual observation, the tower local controllers sequence arrival aircraft for landing and issue departure clearances for those departing from the airport. Other controllers in the tower control the movement of aircraft on the taxiways, handle flight data, and provide flight plan clearances. Terminal radar controllers manage aircraft departing from or arriving to an airport by monitoring each aircraft's movement on radar to ensure that a safe distance is maintained between all aircraft under their control. In addition, terminal controllers keep pilots informed about weather and runway conditions.

Many different controllers are involved in the departure of an airplane. If the plane is flying under instrument flight rule conditions, a flight plan is filed prior to departure. The tower flight data controller receives the flight plan in the form of a flight strip, which is output from a computer, and arranges it in sequence. When an aircraft calls for clearance the clearance delivery controller issues the clearance and moves the strip over to the ground controller who manages the movement of aircraft on the airport surface, except the active runway. When the aircraft arrives at the active runway the strip is moved to the local controller who issues the departure clearance, observes the takeoff and turns the plane over to the departure controller. The TRACON departure controller identifies the plane on radar, climbs it, and directs it on course.

After each plane departs, terminal controllers notify en route controllers, who take charge next. There are 20 air route traffic control centers located around the country, each employing 300 to 700 controllers, with more than 150 on duty during peak hours at the busiest facilities. Airplanes usually fly along designated routes; each center is assigned a certain airspace containing many different routes. En route controllers work either individually or in teams of two, depending on how heavy traffic is; each team is responsible for a sector of the center's airspace.

As the plane proceeds on its flight plan to its destination it is handed off from sector to sector both within the center and to adjoining centers. To prepare for planes about to enter the team's sector, the radar associate controller organizes flight plans output from a printer into strip bays. If two planes are scheduled to enter the team's sector in conflict, the controller may arrange with the preceding sector unit for one plane to change its flight path or altitude. As a plane approaches a team's airspace, the radar controller accepts responsibility for the plane from the previous sector. The controller also delegates responsibility for the plane to the next sector when the plane leaves the team's airspace.

When the plane is approximately 50 miles from the destination airport, it is handed off to that airport's terminal radar arrival controller who sequences it with other arrivals, and issues an approach clearance. As the plane nears the runway, the pilot is issued a clearance to contact the tower. The local controller issues the landing clearance. Once the plane has landed, the ground controller directs it along the taxiways to its assigned gate. The local and ground controllers usually work entirely by sight, but may use airport surface radar if visibility is very poor.

Both airport tower and en route controllers usually control several planes at a time, often making quick decisions about completely different activities. For example, a controller might direct a plane on its landing approach and at the same time provide pilots entering the airport's airspace with information about conditions at the airport. While instructing these pilots, the controller also might observe other planes in the vicinity, such as those in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land, to ensure that they remain well separated.

In addition to airport towers and en route centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations at 17 locations in Alaska. These flight service specialists provide pilots with preflight and in-flight weather information, suggested routes, and other aeronautical information important to the safety of a flight. Flight service specialists relay air traffic control clearances to pilots not in direct communications with a tower or center, assist pilots in emergency situations, and initiate and coordinate searches for missing or overdue aircraft. At certain locations where there is no airport tower or the tower has closed for the day, flight service specialists provide airport advisory services to landing and departing aircraft. However, they are not involved in actively managing and separating air traffic.

Some air traffic controllers work at the FAA's Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, VA, where they oversee the entire system. They look for situations that will create bottlenecks or other problems in the system and then respond with a management plan for traffic into and out of the troubled sector. The objective is to keep traffic levels in the trouble spots manageable for the controllers working at en route centers.

Work environment. During busy times, controllers must work rapidly and efficiently. Total concentration is required to keep track of several planes at the same time and to make certain that all pilots receive correct instructions. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of several aircraft and their passengers can be exhausting. Unlike tower controllers, radar controllers also have the extra stress of having to work in semi-darkness, never seeing the actual aircraft they control except as a small "blip" on the radarscope. Controllers who work in flight service stations work in offices close to the communications and computer equipment.

Controllers work a basic 40-hour week; however, they may work additional hours, for which they receive overtime, or premium pay, or equal time off. Because most control towers and centers operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, controllers rotate night and weekend shifts. Contract towers and flight service station working conditions may vary somewhat from the FAA.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

To become an air traffic controller with the FAA, a person must achieve a qualifying score on the FAA-authorized pre-employment test and meet the basic qualification requirements in accordance with Federal law. Those without prior air traffic control experience must be 30 years of age or younger.

Education and training. There are three main pathways to become an air traffic controller with the FAA. The first is air traffic controllers with prior experience through either the FAA or the Department of Defense as a civilian or veteran. Second are applicants from the general public. These applicants must have 3 years of progressively responsible full-time work experience, have completed a full 4 years of college, or a combination of both. In combining education and experience, 1 year of undergraduate study-30 semester or 45 quarter hours-is equivalent to 9 months of work experience. The third way is for an applicant to have successfully completed an aviation-related program of study through the FAA's Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. In 2008, there were 31 schools in the AT-CTI program.

AT-CTI program schools offer 2-year or 4-year non-engineering degrees that teach basic courses in aviation and air traffic control. In addition to graduation, AT-CTI candidates need a recommendation from their school before being considered for employment as an air traffic controller by the FAA.

Candidates with prior experience as air traffic controllers are automatically qualified for FAA air traffic controller positions. However, applicants from the general public and the AT-CTI program must pass the FAA-authorized pre-employment test that measures their ability to learn the duties of a controller. The test is administered by computer and takes about 8 hours to complete. To take the test, an applicant must apply under an open advertisement for air traffic control positions and be chosen to take the examination. When there are many more applicants than available testing positions, applicants are selected randomly. However, the FAA guarantees that all AT-CTI students in good standing in their programs will be given the FAA pre-employment test. Those who achieve a qualifying score on the test become eligible for employment as an air traffic controller. Candidates must be granted security and medical clearance and are subject to drug screening. Additionally, applicants must meet other basic qualification requirements in accordance with Federal law. These requirements include United States citizenship and the ability to speak English.

Upon selection, employees attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK, for 12 weeks of training, during which they learn the fundamentals of the airway system, FAA regulations, controller equipment, and aircraft performance characteristics, as well as more specialized tasks. Graduates of the AT-CTI program are eligible to bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first 5 weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy.

After graduation from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, candidates are assigned to an air traffic control facility and are classified as "developmental controllers" until they complete all requirements to be certified for all of the air traffic control positions within a defined area of a given facility. Generally, it takes new controllers with only initial controller training between 2 and 4 years, depending on the facility and the availability of facility staff or contractors to provide on-the-job training, to complete all the certification requirements to become certified professional controllers. Individuals who have had prior controller experience normally take less time to become fully certified. Controllers who fail to complete either the academy or the on-the-job portions of the training usually are dismissed. Controllers must pass a physical examination each year and a job performance examination twice each year. Failure to become certified in any position at a facility within a specified time also may result in dismissal. Controllers also are subject to drug screenings as a condition of continuing employment.

Other qualifications. Air traffic controllers must be articulate to give pilots directions quickly and clearly. Intelligence and a good memory also are important because controllers constantly receive information that they must immediately grasp, interpret, and remember. Decisiveness also is required because controllers often have to make quick decisions. The ability to concentrate is crucial because controllers must make these decisions in the midst of noise and other distractions.

Advancement. At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to the position of ground controller, local controller, departure controller, and, finally, arrival controller. At an air route traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate controller and then to radar controller.

Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions, including management or staff jobs-such as air traffic control data systems computer specialist-in air traffic control, and top administrative jobs in the FAA. However, there are only limited opportunities for a controller to switch from a position in an en route center to a tower.

Job Outlook

Air traffic controllers should experience about as fast as average employment growth, but most opportunities are expected to result from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation for other reasons. Keen competition is expected for air traffic controller positions.

Employment change. Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to grow by 13 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Increasing air traffic will require more controllers to handle the additional work. Job growth, however, is not expected to keep pace with the increasing number of aircraft flying due to advances in technology.

The FAA is implementing an automated air traffic control system that will allow controllers to more efficiently deal with the demands of increased air traffic. It includes the replacement of aging equipment and the introduction of new systems, technologies, and procedures to enhance safety and security and support future aviation growth. Future developments will include the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to eliminate radar-based air traffic control and give controllers real-time displays of aircraft locations. This will allow for more efficient flight paths and reduced air traffic congestion, and it will also allow controllers to handle more traffic, increasing their productivity.

Job prospects. Most job opportunities are expected as the result of replacement needs from workers leaving the occupation. The majority of today's air traffic controllers will be eligible to retire over the next decade, although not all are expected to do so. Despite the increasing number of job openings for air traffic controllers, competition to get into the FAA Academy is expected to remain keen, as there generally are many more test applicants than there are openings.

Air traffic controllers who continue to meet the proficiency and medical requirements enjoy more job security than do most workers. While demand for air transportation declines during recessions, controllers are rarely laid off.