How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

If you become an air traffic controller, you will be coordinating the movement of aircraft both in the sky and on the ground. Keeping aircraft a safe distance apart will be your top priority, but you will also be directing aircraft to increase efficiency. In addition, you will also have to carefully monitor aircraft using both radar and sight cues and informs pilots about any changes in weather conditions.


In order to become an air traffic controller, you have to pass a pre-employment aptitude test and enroll in a FAA-approved training program. Right now the FAA exam is only offered to students enrolled in the Air Traffic Control Training Program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College or the FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program. You have to be selected to take this 8 hour computer test, and the selection process usually only happens when there are job openings.

Besides passing the test, you will need to complete 4 years of college or have at least 3 years of full-time work experience or a combination of the two. Just keep in mind that 1 year of college is usually the equivalent of 9 months of work experience. Sometimes employers will consider any aviation experience you may have as a substitute for some of these requirements. In fact, sometimes military veterans who have experience directing air traffic will be exempted from the training program and exam.

After you have successfully completed the all the FAA requirements and are approved for employment as an air traffic controller, you will undergo 12 weeks of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. During this time, you will learn about FAA regulations, computer equipment, the airway system, and other specialized information. Upon graduation, you will be assigned to a control facility where you will be considered a “developmental controller” until you are officially certified, a process that generally takes between 2 and 4 years. Twice a year, you will also have to pass a physical as well as a performance test. You will also be subject to random drug testing.


As a new controller at an airport, you will supply pilots with basic airport information and flight data. From there, you will become a ground controller before moving up to a local controller and then a departure controller until you finally achieve the position of arrival controller. If you are a new controller at an air route traffic control center, you will begin by delivering flight plans to teams and gradually advance to associate controller before becoming a full-fledged radar controller. At any time you will be able to transfer to another location, eventually gaining enough experience to obtain a supervisory position.

Job Outlook

Currently there are approximately 25,000 air traffic controllers in the United States, and this number is projected to grow by about 10 % in the next few years. Also, once you are hired, you usually have good job security since even in recessions, air traffic controllers are rarely laid off even though their hours may be cut. As an air traffic controller, you can expect to earn anywhere from a low of $60,000 a year to a high of $145,000 a year, depending on your level of experience and where you work. You can also expect to have two to four weeks of paid vacation as well as 10 to 15 days of pay sick leave along with life insurance, health benefits, and good early retirement options. The drawback is that you may have to work nights, weekends and holidays.

So even though being an air traffic controller can be a demanding and stressful occupation, you will be compensated well for what you do.