Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic, to ensure that aircraft stay safe distances apart.


Air traffic controllers typically do the following:

  • Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots
  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, using radar, computers, or visual references
  • Control all ground traffic at airports, including baggage vehicles and airport workers
  • Manage communications by transferring control of departing flights to traffic control centers and accepting control of arriving flights
  • Provide information to pilots, such as weather updates, runway closures, and other critical information
  • Alert airport response staff, in the event of an aircraft emergency

Air traffic controllers’ primary concern is safety, but they also must direct aircraft efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport airspace, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor aircraft, as they travel through the skies.

Controllers usually manage multiple aircraft at the same time and must make quick decisions to ensure the safety of the aircraft. For example, a controller might direct one aircraft on its landing approach, while providing another aircraft with weather information.

The following are examples of types of air traffic controllers:

Tower controllers direct the movement of vehicles on runways and taxiways. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other traffic on the runways and other parts of the airport. Most work from control towers, as they generally must be able to see the traffic they control.

Approach and departure controllers ensure that aircraft traveling within an airport’s airspace maintain minimum separation for safety. They give clearances to enter controlled airspace and hand off control of aircraft to en route controllers. They use radar equipment to monitor flight paths and work in buildings known as Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs). They also provide information to pilots, such as weather conditions and other critical notices.

En route controllers monitor aircraft once they leave an airport’s airspace. They work at air route traffic control centers located throughout the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and altitude of the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches and flies through a center’s airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route. They may adjust the flight path of aircraft for safety and collision avoidance.

As an airplane goes along its route, en route controllers hand the plane off to the next center, approach control, or tower along the path, as needed. En route controllers pay special attention to aircraft as they descend and get closer to the busier airspace around an airport. En route controllers turn the aircraft over to the airport’s approach controllers when the aircraft is about 50 miles from the airport.

Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. These controllers monitor traffic patterns within the entire national airspace that could create bottlenecks in the system. When they find a bottleneck, they provide instructions to other controllers that help to prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airport and for en route controllers.

Work Environment

Air traffic controllers held about 25,000 jobs in 2012. The majority of controllers worked for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en-route centers. Many tower and approach/departure controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings located across the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Approach/departure controllers often work in semi dark rooms. The aircraft they control appear as points of light moving across their radar screens, and a well-lit room would make it difficult to see the screen properly.

Controllers must work rapidly and efficiently, while maintaining total concentration. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers can be taxing. As a result, controllers tend to retire earlier than most workers: those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age 50. Controllers are required to retire at age 56.

Work Schedules

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. Controllers may rotate shifts between day, evening, and night, because major control centers operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that only operate part time. Controllers at these airports have more normal work schedules.

Education and Training

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.

Important Qualities

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.


The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $122,530 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $64,930, and the top 10 percent earned more than $171,340.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the starting salary for new controllers undergoing training was $17,803 in 2012. Controllers’ salaries increase as they complete each new training phase. According to the FAA, controllers who have completed on-the-job training and had been placed at a facility had a starting annual salary of $37,070 in 2012. A full explanation of current starting wages can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) jobs & careers page.

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. Controllers may rotate shifts between day, evening, and night, because major control centers operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that only operate part time. Controllers at these airports have more normal work schedules.

Union Membership

Most air traffic controllers belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022. Most employment opportunities will result from the need to replace workers who retire.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not, and does not expect to reduce the overall number of controllers, although total air traffic has fallen since 2000. Even though air traffic is expected to increase, employment growth will not keep pace, because the FAA already has enough personnel capacity. In addition, federal budget constraints should limit the hiring of new controllers. In the long term, the NextGen satellite-based system is expected to allow individual controllers to handle more air traffic.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities will be best for individuals with prior experience or those who are in their early 20s and have completed an AT-CTI study program. Competition for air traffic controller jobs is expected to be very strong, as many people will apply to a relatively few number of jobs. Those who are willing to live anywhere in the country will have an advantage.

For More Information

For more information about air traffic controllers, visit

Federal Aviation Administration

National Air Traffic Controllers Association

For additional career information about air traffic controllers, see the Occupational Outlook Quarterly article “Sky-high careers: jobs related to airlines.”