Air traffic controllers guide aerial traffic to ensure safe aerial safety.

They monitor all aircraft in their sector using radar and provide pilots with instructions on where to fly.

There are also multiple types of air traffic controllers that operate different parts of aerial traffic.

Because of how stressful their jobs are, being an air traffic controller is a very lengthy process that takes many years of training to be fully certified. 

Air Traffic Controller Duties & Responsibilities

Air traffic controllers safely direct aircraft during flights in their sector.

Every sector of airspace has at least one air traffic controller. 

Air traffic controllers have the following 5 responsibilities: 

  • Air Traffic Control

An air traffic controller manages air traffic while in control towers.

Often, they will use radars to monitor traffic.

  • Assisting Pilots

Air traffic controllers help pilots during flight, such as during emergencies or other problems.

  • Training and Maintenance

Air traffic controllers operate and maintain the hardware and software systems that are vital for traffic control facilities.

  • Providing Directions

Air traffic controllers provide directional instructions to all controllers for ensuring safe air traffic.

  • Reporting to Authorities

Air traffic controllers formalize reports on problems related to aerial traffic. 

The 3 Types of Air Traffic Controllers            

There are 3 types of air traffic controllers: 

1. Tower Controllers

Tower controllers direct the movement of all vehicles, both aerial and ground vehicles, on taxiways and runways.

They also provide airplane pilots with landing and take-off clearance.

They’re also responsible for safely moving aircraft between runways and stands.

2. Approach and Depart Controllers

Approach and Depart controllers are responsible for ensuring that airplanes maintain a safe distance while traveling in the airport’s airspace.

They also create a sequence for landing for approaching aircraft.

3. Enroute or Area controllers

Enroute or Area controllers monitor aircraft at high altitude (over 5,000 feet) after they leave the airport.

They guide airplanes during the climb, descent, and en-route flight phase.

Air Traffic Controllers Aren’t Overworked

Typically, air traffic controllers work 8 hours a day for 5 days a week, totaling 40 hours a week.

Controllers are normally not allowed to work more than 10 consecutive hours in a shift, and they must have a 9-hour break before their following shift.

Controllers also rotate shifts during different times of the day because air traffic control never sleeps and has to work continuously. 

A College Degree Isn’t Always Required

To become an Air Traffic Controller, you will generally need either a bachelor’s or associate degree from an AT-CTI (Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative) program.

Potential air traffic controllers should have either a bachelor’s or associate degree from an CT-CTI program. 

However, it is also possible to become an air traffic controller if you have 3 years of proven progressively responsible work experience.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

You have to meet these 5 criteria to become an air traffic controller.

1. Education

Air Traffic controllers need an associate or bachelor’s degree, often from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program.

These programs provide lessons in aviation, airspace, and other relevant subjects.

However, if you have 3 years of proven progressively responsible work experience, you may also qualify.

2. Qualifying Tests

Graduates of AT-CTI programs must take the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam and pass the FAA pre-employment test.

Upon passing, they may apply for air traffic controller jobs.

3. Training

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) trains air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Academy (FAA) after which they’re assigned to job locations to continue training while working.

4. Professional Experience

Air traffic controllers may need to have up to 3 years of progressively responsible generalized work experience in any occupation, or a combination of work experience and college education.

More work experience is necessary to substitute for less postsecondary education.

You could also substitute the professional experience with a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

5. Licenses

Air traffic controllers must be FAA-certified by passing an exam and meeting experience requirements, usually through on-the-job training after graduation from the FAA academy. 

Skills and Qualities Necessary to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers need the following qualities: 

  • Concentration: Air traffic controllers must be able to concentrate with full focus to ensure aerial traffic safety.
  • Decisiveness:  Air traffic controllers must be able to quickly make decisions.
  • Math Abilities: Controllers must quickly calculate airplane, speed, time, distance, and provide recommendations accordingly.
  • Communication Abilities: Controllers must give clear instructions and actively listen to the pilot’s responses. 

Air Traffic Controller Salary  

The average US traffic controller has an annual income of $120,830.

But, some States pay as little as $70,000. 

It Takes Years to Become an Air Traffic Controller

It takes between 5 and 8 years to become a certified air traffic controller.

The time to become an air traffic controller depends on the individual and what steps they take.

The FAA requires at least 3 years of work experience in an aviation-related field, but you can also meet that requirement by completing a 4-year bachelor’s degree. 

The FAA Academy also trains potential air traffic controllers for between 2 and 5 months, depending on their experience.

Next, you’re required to complete 2 to 4 years of on-the-job training before you’re fully certified.

So, the entire process to become a fully certified air traffic controller takes between 5 and 8 years

There is An Age Limit for Air Traffic Controllers

Yes, aspiring air traffic controllers must be 30 years old or younger on their application period’s closing date.

The FAA does not permit older applicants because they’ve determined that older applicants can’t realistically complete the rigorous training needed to become an air traffic controller.

Air Traffic controllers are also required to retire at 56 years of age since they’re likely to suffer from reduced eyesight, memory and hearing loss at that age, which prevents them from working effectively. 

An Air Traffic Controller is a High-Stress Job

An air traffic controller is an extremely high-stress job, since controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety and lives of thousands of people onboard commercial airliners every single day.

Controllers must often contend with heavy traffic, bad weather, and  potential emergencies. 

Number of Air Traffic Controllers in the USA and Worldwide

The FAA has more than 14,000 air traffic controllers in the institution’s 700 facilities in the US.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association (IFATCA) represents over 50,000 air traffic controllers across 126 countries internationally.

So, there are at least 50,000 air traffic controllers internationally. 

Air Traffic Controllers Can Fly For Free

Air traffic controllers only get two round trips per year, and they must be in the domestic USA.

This can also not be combined with vacation time.

However, some countries allow air traffic controllers to receive a limited number of free flights per year. 

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).