Transportation & me: An air traffic controller

In our last Transportation & me article, we looked at what it takes to be a pilot. Airplanes take us where we need to go, and where there is a pilot in the air, there’s also an air traffic controller on the ground.

Becoming an air traffic controller is a serious commitment. It’s said to be an exciting, fast-paced environment to work in, but also a challenging profession to get into. But many would agree, when it comes to being an air traffic controller, the work is worth the reward. If you want to work with planes, and if aviation fascinates you, it just might be a good fit.

Life of an air traffic controller

In general, air traffic controllers coordinate the movements of aircraft and make sure there is a safe distance between. They have a lot of duties, but safety is their primary concern.

Air traffic controllers orchestrate the movement of aircraft both on the ground and in the air. They control all the ground traffic at the airport on the runways and taxiways (i.e., the stretches that planes take off, travel, and land on). Likewise, they issue instructions to the pilots for both takeoffs and landings. They also inform the pilot about weather, if a runway is closed, and other key information.

The main thing an air traffic controller should be worried about is safety, but they also need to work efficiently to minimize flight delays. Air traffic controllers work with radars, computers, and visual references to monitor the aircraft. Since they typically manage multiple aircraft at the same time, they often need to make quick decisions to ensure safety and efficiency. For example, an air traffic controller may be directing one plane for takeoff while relaying the weather forecast to another.

Becoming the “man on the ground”

To qualify, you need either three years of responsible work experience, a bachelor’s degree, a combination of postsecondary education and work experience, or a degree through one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programs. And after that, you begin a meticulous testing and evaluation process.

For instance, you need to pass a medical examination, drug screening, and other background checks, as well as a FAA pre-employment test, biographical (biodata) assessment, and the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA). Once you pass both the ATSA and biodata test, you can enroll in the FAA Academy, where you need to complete a training course (that you must start by your 31st birthday).


Being an air traffic controller definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s best to make sure you fit the profile first.

As an air traffic controller, you need to be an effective communicator. You need to be able to deliver clear instructions and listen carefully while communicating with pilots and other air traffic controllers. You also need to have good concentration skills, as air traffic controllers typically need to focus on the task at hand while in a room where multiple conversations are happening all at once.

Perhaps most importantly, air traffic controllers need to be confident in their ability to make decisions. You’d need to make quick, well-informed decisions if, for example, a pilot requests a change in the flight path because of poor weather conditions. You’d also need to be able to make calculations to compute speeds, times, and distances for flight plans.

Lastly, you need to have good organizational and problem-solving skills. To accommodate multiple flights at once, air traffic controllers need to prioritize tasks while guiding several pilots concurrently.

Types of air traffic controllers

There are typically three different kinds of air traffic controllers: tower, approach and departure, and en route controllers.

Tower controllers—Tower controllers direct aircraft as it travels on the ground. They check flight plans, clear pilots for takeoff and landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other vehicle traffic on the runways, taxiways, and in other parts of the airport. Tower controllers typically work in a control tower where they can observe the traffic they direct. Their area of management includes the airport and a radius of 3 to 30 miles outside the airport.

Tower controller inside air traffic control tower. Photo from Flickr user NATS - UK air traffic control
Tower controller inside air traffic control tower.
Photo from Flickr user NATS - UK air traffic control

Approach and departure controllers—Once aircraft takeoff, it’s up to the approach and departure controllers to make sure that the aircraft within the airport’s airspace maintain a safe distance apart. These controllers clear pilots to enter controlled airspace before handing off control to the en route controllers. They work in buildings known as “Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers” or TRACONs, where they monitor flight paths using radar. They assist the aircraft until it reaches the edge of the facility’s airspace, about 20 to 50 miles outside the airport and 17,000 ft in the air.

Inside a Terminal Radar Approach Control Center (TRACON). Photo from
Inside a Terminal Radar Approach Control Center (TRACON).
Photo from

En route controllers—En route controllers monitor the aircraft once outside the airport’s airspace. These controllers are the ones who will guide the aircraft for the bulk of the flight.  They work at places called “air route traffic control centers,” which are generally not at airports, but rather spread across the country. Each air route traffic control center is assigned an area of airspace, and any aircraft that approach/fly through that airspace is guided by en route controllers at the corresponding center. These controllers alter the flight paths of different aircraft to avoid collisions and to take other safety precautions.

En route controllers. Photo from
En route controllers.
Photo from

Lastly, there are air traffic controllers that help other air traffic controllers. These controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center (ATCSCC), monitoring traffic within the entire national airspace. These controllers help orchestrate all other air traffic controllers. For example, ATCSCC controllers may identify a “bottleneck,” or disruption in traffic. It’s their duty to then provide instructions to all other air traffic controllers to help alleviate the traffic jam. For air traffic controllers at the ATCSCC, their primary responsibility is large-scale traffic flow management.

Operations floor at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC). Photo from
Operations floor at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC).
Photo from

Outlook & salary

When it comes to the life of an air traffic controller, the work is worth the reward. In May 2016, the median annual wage for an air traffic controller was $122,410. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,390, while the top 10 percent earned more than $172,680. Your salary is likely to increase as successive levels of training are completed.

However, the job outlook for air traffic controllers is lower than other professions, and it is only projected to increase 3 percent from 2016 to 2026. The journey to becoming an air traffic controller is a challenging and competitive race for a relatively small number of jobs. Although air travel is expected to increase over the coming decade, NextGen is expected to allow controllers to handle more traffic at once, thus limiting the number of future jobs available.  

Transportation & you

So, what do you think, do you want to be an air traffic controller?

To learn more about the life of an air traffic controller, read GO! Magazine’s 5 Questions with… an air traffic controller. And if this isn’t the career for you, check out our other Transportation & you articles featuring a variety of other exciting transportation careers!


Related links

(Article) How to Become an Air Traffic Controller:

More about biodata testing:

Full list of qualifications/training and credentials:

(Article) 5 questions with… an air traffic controller:

(Article) ‘Green’ transportation innovations: ‘NextGen’ air traffic control:

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer