How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers often work in semi-dark rooms.
To become an air traffic controller, an applicant must
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Have a bachelor’s degree, or work experience, or a combination of education and experience totaling 3 years
- Pass medical and background checks
- Achieve a qualifying score on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) preemployment test, which includes a biographical assessment
- Pass the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT)
- Complete a training course at the FAA Academy (and start it before turning 31 years of age)
The AT-SAT 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.
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.
The FAA sets guidelines for schools that offer a program 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 related topics.
Also known as a biodata test, the biographical assessment is a personality exam that looks at a candidate’s response patterns in order to determine whether the person is a good fit for additional air traffic education. For more information, see the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) page on biodata tests. Applicants who pass both the AT-SAT and the biographical assessment are eligible to enroll in an intensive training course at the FAA Academy.
Air traffic controllers also may apply for positions through vacancy announcements made to the general public when such announcements are available. The announcements allow those 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 sequential work experience, or have some combination of the two. To improve their chances of passing the exam, applicants from the general public should try to educate themselves along the lines of the AT-CTI and AT-SAT standards.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Applicants with only a high school education will need to have years of sequential 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 acceptable.
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 preemployment test. There can be specific job postings for those who already have experience working as an air traffic controller, such as through the military.
Most newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The length of training varies with the position and the applicant’s background. Applicants must be hired by their 31st birthday.
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. 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 are usually dismissed.
There are opportunities for a controller to switch from an en route position to an airport position, although the transfer requires additional Academy training. Within both of 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 and fluent in English, and they must comply with all knowledge and skill requirements.
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.
Decisionmaking 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 speeds, times, and distances, and they 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, because 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 appropriate solutions.