Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers work within the National Airspace System to manage movement of aircraft so that they remain a safe distance apart. Terminal controllers must oversee all planes within an airport’s airspace, chiefly to organize flow of aircraft into and out of the airport, working from either the control tower or the terminal radar approach control (TRACON) building.

When a plane departs, the tower flight data controller receives the flight plan. When a pilot asks for clearance, the clearance delivery controller issues the clearance and then the ground controller manages aircraft movement on the surface, except the active runway. When the aircraft reaches the runway, the local controller issues the departure clearance, observes the takeoff, and then turns the plane over to the TRACON departure controller, who directs it on its course via radar.

After every plane’s departure, terminal controllers notify en route controllers. There are twenty air route traffic control centers located around the country. Each center is assigned airspace with many different aircraft routes crossing it. En route controllers may work individually or in teams of two, each responsible for a sector of the center’s airspace. As the plane proceeds, it is passed from sector to sector within the center and to adjoining centers. The radar associate controller organizes flight plans, accepts responsibility for approaching planes, and passes control of that plane to the next sector.

When a plane is approximately fifty miles from its destination, that terminal’s radar arrival controller sequences it with other arrivals and issues an approach clearance. The pilot then receives a clearance to contact the tower. The local controller issues the landing clearance, and the ground controller directs it along the taxiways to its gate.

Air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations at seventeen locations in Alaska. Flight service specialists give clearances to pilots not in direct contact with a tower or center and assist in emergency situations. Some air traffic controllers work at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, overseeing the entire system.

Controllers are required to work rapidly and efficiently, keeping track of several planes at once. The stress of this responsibility can be exhausting. Controllers work a standard forty-hour week, receiving overtime, premium pay, or equal time off for additional hours worked. Since air travel occurs 24/7, controllers must rotate night and weekend shifts.


There are three ways to become an air traffic controller with the FAA. First, controllers with previous experience as a civilian or veteran with either the FAA or the Department of Defense immediately qualify. Second, applicants from the general public must have three years of progressively responsible full-time work experience, a full four years of college, or a combination of these. Third, an applicant must have successfully completed a program through the FAA’s Air Traffic Controller Training Initiative (AT-CTI). These schools offer two-year or four-year non-engineering degrees teaching the basics of aviation and air traffic control. Graduates of AT-CTI must also have a recommendation from their school.

Additionally, applicants from the general public and the AT-CTI program must pass the FAA-authorized pre-employment test, which is administered by a computer and takes about eight hours. Applicants who pass the test become eligible for employment as air traffic controllers, but they first must be given security and medical clearance and drug screening. An air traffic controller must be a U.S. citizen and be able to speak English.

Those employed must then attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City for twelve weeks of training. Each candidate is assigned to an air traffic facility and becomes a “developmental controller” until he meets requirements to become certified, which usually takes two to four years. Controllers must pass a physical exam once a year and a job performance exam twice a year. They must continue to be drug free. Air traffic controllers must be articulate in giving instructions. They need intelligence and a good memory and the ability to make quick decisions. Being able to concentrate is critical.

New controllers begin with basic duties and progress to the more skilled and complicated positions. Controllers can transfer to different locations or advance to supervisory positions or higher. However, there are only limited opportunities to switch from an en route center to a tower.


In the near future, with increasing air traffic, more controllers will be required. However, job growth is not expected to keep up with increasing air traffic because the FAA is implementing an automated air traffic control system. Most job openings will arise because of controllers retiring from the profession. Despite these openings, competition to get into the FAA Academy will likely remain high.

Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits. Their median annual wages are about $112,000. The air traffic control pay system classifies each air traffic facility into one of eight levels with corresponding pay bands. Thus, controllers’ salaries are determined by the rating of the facility. Ninety percent of controllers work for the federal government and may retire at an earlier age with fewer years of service than other federal employees. Many air traffic controllers are union members with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.