Air traffic controllers direct the movement of aircraft around the skies. They must ensure that all aircraft are in a safe position for takeoff or landing, and that they are able to maintain a safe distance from each other while in the air.
Air traffic controllers use radar, computers, and radio systems to track the location of aircraft in the skies around them. They also use these tools to communicate with pilots about their location, direction, speed, and destination. This is especially important during takeoffs and landings—the areas when planes are most likely to collide with each other.
Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be an air traffic controller and what it takes to become one yourself.
Air Traffic Controller Job Duties
Air traffic controllers are generally responsible for the following duties:
- Monitoring aircraft and communicating with pilots to ensure safe and orderly flight operations
- Observing air traffic to ensure safe separation between planes at all times using radar systems, voice communications, or visual aids such as runway lights
- Ensuring that air traffic is routed safely and efficiently by planning flight paths and giving instructions to pilots
- Maintaining communication with control towers, radar operators, and other air traffic facilities and aircraft
- Reporting weather conditions that might affect flight safety or operations, such as wind speed, precipitation, visibility, and turbulence
- Coordinating with pilots to ensure they are aware of potential hazards on their route, which may include changing winds or other environmental factors that could affect flying safety
Air Traffic Controller Salary & Outlook
The median annual wage for air traffic controllers is $90,753. The top earners make more than $170,000 per year. Those earning higher wages tend to work for the federal government.
The employment of air traffic controllers is expected to grow at a slower than average rate over the next decade. The number of jobs will decline as automated systems are incorporated into the process, but this will be offset by continuing demand for air travel.
Air Traffic Controller Job Requirements
The educational, training and certification requirements for an air traffic controller are as follows:
Education: All candidates must have a high school diploma or the equivalent. However, most employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as aviation, aerospace, or aeronautical science.
Training: Air traffic controller candidates should expect to complete several months of training after they begin working with an employer. These training programs may be conducted either in-house or at an accredited school. During these programs, candidates learn how to control aircraft and read radar information. They also learn about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s guidelines for controlling aircraft and other details on their job responsibilities.
Certifications & Licenses: Air traffic controllers need to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Candidates must pass a skills assessment exam.
Air Traffic Controller Skills
The following skills are required for this job:
Attention to detail: Air traffic controllers must have a sharp eye and excellent attention to detail.
Interpersonal skills: Communication is the key to a successful air traffic controller, as he or she must communicate clearly with pilots, other controllers, and supervisors.
Math skills: An understanding of math is necessary for calculating aircraft speed, fuel consumption, time in flight, and other important data.
Nerves of steel: Air traffic controllers need nerves of steel because they work in an environment that is extremely high-pressure. Controllers must be able to handle pressure from all sides—from pilots, supervisors, other controllers, and airport managers—and respond calmly and efficiently at all times.
Decision making skills: A crucial part of the job is deciding which flights should take off first and how much space should be allowed between planes. The decisions an air traffic controller makes affect hundreds of lives daily, so he or she must make decisions quickly and correctly.
Computer skills: Computer skills are essential as air traffic controllers use them to control aircraft movements and other aspects of their jobs. They also use computers to generate reports and monitor equipment status.
Air Traffic Controller Work Environment
Air traffic controllers work in a busy, often noisy room sitting at a radar or computer terminal and looking into a video display system. They spend much of their time talking on the phone or through headsets to coordinate takeoffs and landings. The job can be stressful, because they must keep a constant eye on the radar screens and watch for other planes in the area. Air traffic controllers typically work regular business hours, but they often work weekends and holidays.
Air Traffic Controller Career Path
New air traffic controllers are expected to be ready to work any time, seven days a week, which makes for long hours and, depending on the time of year, irregular shifts. For the first two years, entry-level air traffic controllers are required to serve as aids to more senior personnel, watching them work their scopes at the radar console to learn the skills of their profession.
Five Years Out
The work becomes more interesting for those who remain because controllers begin to handle more complex situations such as weather, emergencies, and instrument landings. The hours are still long, and many people leave this profession at this point. A small number become supervisors or control towers operators. Some leave for other occupations in aviation or transportation.
Ten Years Out
Ten-year veterans have achieved a high level of expertise and skill; they’re well respected by their peers. They spend less time on routine tasks and more time handling emergencies that require quick judgment and flawless execution under stress. Veteran air traffic controllers express satisfaction with their work. Many still work long hours but they are able to recieve the best shifts due to their seniority.
Air Traffic Controller Trends
Here are three trends influencing how air traffic controllers work. Air traffic controllers will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
Increasing Importance of Data
Technology will continue to influence how air traffic controllers monitor their airspace, as sensors are integrated into the landscape of flight paths.
Air traffic control is expected to shift towards data-driven decision making. With less emphasis on hard-copy reports and more on real-time data, new technologies will be introduced to integrate real-time tracking systems with traditional radar technology. This will provide controllers with up-to-date information on flight trajectories and aircraft locations.
Increased Use of Machine Learning
Machine learning algorithms are increasingly being used to help analyze data related to air traffic control, which can be an important tool for reducing wait times and decreasing accidents.
For example, machine learning is currently being used in the U.S. to create computer models that predict where airplanes are most likely to run into trouble with weather-related conditions or air traffic controllers. This allows for more efficient flight plans that avoid these areas of concern.
Increasing Importance of Safety Over Speed
Increasing Air Traffic The continued growth of air traffic will require ATCs to be even more precise in order to keep flight delays and accidents to a minimum.
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that as many as 2,400 commercial flights will enter U.S. airspace every hour by 2035—which would represent a nearly 50% increase from 2014 levels—which is why it is important for controllers to balance safety with speed, especially as commercial flights become more common and planes fly at higher altitudes.
How to Become a Air Traffic Controller
1. Planning Your Career
When considering a career as an air traffic controller, it is important to think about the kind of lifestyle you want. Air traffic controllers work long hours and may be called upon to work nights, weekends, and holidays; if this type of schedule works for you, consider pursuing this career path. To become an air traffic controller, you must be eligible for a government security clearance. It is also important to consider the location of your desired position and how it will affect your commute. This may affect the types of opportunities available to you.
2. Writing a Resume
The best resumes for air traffic controllers stress their experience in providing guidance to pilots and other air traffic controllers. You should also list any training that you’ve received that allows you to assist pilots with landing or responding to emergencies, as well as your ability to communicate effectively under pressure.
You should include several examples of handling challenging situations, including how you handled them and what the results were. For example, you could describe how you managed an incident where two aircraft came unusually close together or another situation where it was necessary to quickly respond to a dangerous situation.
3. Applying for Jobs
Air traffic controllers have a variety of routes to employment, from hiring from within the FAA, to being hired by a large air carrier, to being hired by a small company that contracts with the FAA.
If you’re interested in starting your career with the FAA, you can apply for work through USAJobs.gov. If you are working with a specific company or contractor, contact them directly for job opportunities; if you don’t know anyone at the company, you can look for job listings on sites like Monster.com or Indeed.com.
4. Ace the Interview
Preparation is key when interviewing for an air traffic control job. Air traffic controllers have extensive technical knowledge, so interviewers will want to know that you have the ability to learn the job quickly and apply it in a professional manner.
Prepare for the interview by reviewing the job description. Consider all of the necessary skills listed in it and how they relate to your experience. For example, if you have previous experience working with a team, include specific examples about how you effectively worked with others to reach a common goal.