How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers perform the vital service of coordinating flight paths, scheduling takeoffs and landings, advising pilots of conditions and monitoring instruments that keep track of aircraft both in flight and on the runway. The job is complicated and requires close, constant attention to detail, the ability to think on one’s feet and a cool head under pressure. Because so much responsibility is placed in the hands of air traffic controllers, it is a well-paid job with excellent benefits.

One can become an air traffic controller through one of three avenues. First, many are trained by the military, including both civilians and veterans who have worked in the field for the Department of Defense. Secondly, one can apply to the FAA after having obtained a bachelor’s degree or three years of progressively-responsible full-time work, and finally those who wish to become air traffic controllers can also complete either a 2-year or 4-year program offered through the FAA Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative program (AT-CTI), which is offered through 31 schools nationwide.

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Not everyone can be an air traffic controller; prospective hires must meet a number of qualifications. To meet these, one must:

  • Graduate from an FAA approved AT-CTI program
  • Receive an official school recommendation
  • Be a United States citizen
  • In most cases, not have reached age 31
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass a security investigation
  • Achieve a score of at least 70 on the FAA pre-employment test
  • Speak English clearly enough for others to understand you on communications equipment
  • Complete an interview

Going through the AT-CTI program at an accredited school will get a few of these out of the way, but obviously one cannot change age, citizenship status, or health through school. However, the program allows those who complete it to waive the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is a five-week program in Oklahoma City other applicants must complete, and prepares students for the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) test.

Another advantage of getting a degree in air traffic/aviation management (4-year bachelor of science) or air traffic control (2-year associate of science) is that colleges screen applicants for suitability, and recommend graduates to the FAA, bypassing some of the steps required of ordinary civilian applicants.

Additionally, because of the high salary air traffic controllers command – well over $100,000 per year on average – competition for jobs is intense. Applicants with degrees are more competitive, and given the pay the degree is well worth the money.

Before studying to be an air traffic controller, prospective students and applicants should carefully consider whether they are up to the job. It can be stressful, the hours vary and include night work, and the safety of thousands is in an air traffic controller’s hands every day. However, it can also be a great career with advancement opportunities, good benefits and vacation time. As it is a government position, those who get their foot in the door are well taken care of.

If you are interested in a job as an air traffic controller, consider all the options, and if you think you fit the bill, take a look at the programs offered and see which one is most convenient and best fits your goals.