What It Takes to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Control Tower and facilities at Boston's Logan Airport | Commercial Aviation and Airline News

Air Traffic Control Shortage

We’ve seen interest from our readers in just how the Air Traffic Control system works and will explain the process in an upcoming series of four additional articles.  The process is an interesting one and can vary greatly, depending on where your journey takes you, but first and foremost, a there’s a current shortage of ATC employees dating back to the era of President Reagan when the air traffic controllers went on strike with the PATCO union.

Today, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the existing organization and the FAA has documented about 11,000 controllers, which is the lowest level since the 1981 PATCO strike.  Facilities where Air Traffic Controllers work vary from the airport tower to tracon and “enroute” facilities, each playing a different role.

Low numbers exist, even at some of the busiest of facilities, and today, we now have employees retiring and not enough fresh recruits to fill their shoes.

One can’t quite compare work as an Air Traffic Controller to an average 9 to 5 job, as depending on where one is working, full attention and concentration is a must.  It’s up to air traffic controllers to communicate with aircraft, ensuring the safety of the plane while providing direction.  ATC must also be aware of weather forecasts as well as changing weather.

Mistakes or just being inattentive can have catastrophic circumstance, such as the case of US Airways 1493.

On February 1, 1991, it was evening and US Air 1493, a Boeing 737 was on final approach into Los Angeles International Airport.  A number of abnormalities distracted the local Air Traffic Controller, who then provided clearance to a SkyWest TurboProp to taxi into position and hold on the same active runway US 1493 had been cleared to land on.  The US Air Boeing 737 collided with the twin-engine turboprop.

The NTSB, concluded after investigation that the probable cause of the accident was procedures in place at the Los Angeles International Airport control tower coupled with inadequate redundancy which led to a loss of situational awareness by the local controller.  Changes were made at LAX to prevent this type of accident from happening again with use of separate runways for departures and arrivals.

Despite the the above, a rare event dating back over 20 years, being an Air Traffic Controller in the United States can be a rewarding position.  The workload can be high, along with arduous night and weekend shifts, but a median salary of $100,000 combined with government benefits makes the job attractive.  When it comes to looking for work with the federal government, the role of an air traffic controller may seem suitable.

If you’re coming out of high school or getting started at a four year university and deciding upon a career-path, this is definitely something to look into – even better if you have an interest in aviation.

Basic Requirements

The United States government, like most employers, has specific requirements before prospects can become a certified air traffic controller.  Individuals with no prior experience in aviation must meet the following specifications:

  • Be under 31 years of age;
  • Be a U.S. citizen;
  • Pass a background check;
  • Pass a medical exam;
  • Earn a Bachelor’s degree or be in the last year of a four-year degree program;
  • Speak clear English;
  • Earn the minimum 70 score on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pre-employment test; and finally,
  • Pass an interview

Air Traffic Control Training Initiative Program

In order to pass the certified test for the FAA, most students will enroll in an Air Traffic Control Training Initiative Program (AT-CTI) program to help prepare them for the rigors of the job.  Individuals interested in an AT-CTI school can find prospective schools at Air Traffic Controller Training.org.

A certified program will help students become familiar with FAA regulations, develop necessary skills, and prepare to pass the necessary training at the FAA Academy.  At the completion of a program, students will earn a management degree from the FAA certifying that they are ready to take and complete the FAA pre-employment test.

Pre-Employment Testing

Not all individuals who apply to take the pre-employment test will be allowed to participate in the exam.  Should you receive the green light, the Aviation Careers Division will provide you with a referral to take the exam.  If that’s a go, a private contractor will then be in contact with you, advising you where and when the test will take place as well as the type of information you will be tested on.

You must receive a test score of 70 or better to be eligible for the FAA Academy. Individuals who score in the 70-84 percentile will be considered qualified, while prospects scoring above the 85 percentile will be considered well qualified.

Individuals will have two chances to take and pass the test.  After the second failed attempt, individuals will not be able to retest under the AT-CTI.

Complete FAA Training

Providing one passes the pre-employment test and meets the requirements, there’s a good chance at being selected to attend training at the FAA facility in Oklahoma City.  Here, students will be trained by certified experts and master the basics to be deployed to the field.  Once finished, its off to one of the many control facilities to further knowledge with on the job training.

Hands-On Training

While at the control facilities, individuals will receive more hands-on training in an actual air traffic control setting. Students will work side-by-side with professionals and be required to attend classroom lectures and complete simulations.  Once hands-on training is finished at a certified facility, one may continue forward to become a fully-fledged air traffic controller.

Applying for Position

While this step may seem obvious, individuals will still need to search and apply for controller positions at any one of the thousands of airports or FAA facilities scattered throughout the United States.  If selected, be prepared for yet another interview and a final background check.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012)


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