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Here’s How You Become an Air Traffic Controller
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger
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So you're fascinated by the aviation industry and interested in a job in air traffic control. But what exactly does an air traffic controller do, how can you become one and where can you find a job as an air traffic controller?

Let's look into all of the above.

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Simply, an air traffic controller works out of control towers, approach control facilities or route centers where they coordinate air traffic patterns to assure the safety of aircrafts and give aircraft clearances to take off or land safely. Sometimes, this means changing flight paths and delaying departures and the parking of landing planes. This is because their ultimate responsibility is to keep aircrafts, flight crews and airline passengers safe.

How Do You Become an Air Traffic Controller?

You might be wondering, is it hard to become a air traffic controller? That depends on who you ask. What I can tell you is that becoming an air traffic controller requires a number of steps, from getting an education to getting job experience. 

Keep in mind that, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, these are the requirements you must meet to become an air traffic controller:

  • Be a United States citizen
  • Be age 30 or under (on the closing date of the application period)*
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass a security investigation
  • Pass the FAA air traffic pre-employment tests
  • Speak English clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment
  • Have three years of progressively responsible work experience, or a Bachelor's degree, or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years*
  • Be willing to relocate to an FAA facility based on agency staffing needs

"Every minute, every hour, every day, there are men and women working to ensure the safety and efficiency of our national airspace system," according to the administration. "This elite group of more than 14,000 FAA air traffic control specialists provide a vital public service to guide pilots, their planes and 2.2 million daily passengers from taxi to takeoff, through the air and back safely on the ground. Because of the serious nature of this work and zero margin for error, the training regimen and proficiencies needed to become an air traffic control specialist, are demanding. Initial selection does not guarantee placement into federal civilian service. Entry-level applicants must complete required training courses at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City* and gain on-the-job experience before becoming certified professional controllers."

So how long does it take to become an air traffic controller? That also depends on how long it takes for you to take (and pass) all the appropriate tests, complete your training and get busy applying for jobs.

First of all, you are required to have a formal education or employment experience, which may include a bachelor's degree (four years) or related work experience of at least three years. Preferably, you'd have a combination of both education and employment experience.  From there, you'll need to take some more specific steps to become an air traffic controller.

1. Attend an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) Program

The Federal Aviation Administration has created a network of partnerships with educational institutions in order to prepare students to pursue their goals of a career in aviation with the administration, such as in air traffic control. The successful completion of the degree program(s) you can find here does not guarantee employment with the administration.

Note: Again, it's important to know that, due to a Federal Aviation Administration requirement, you must begin your training no later than your 31st birthday, and you will face mandatory retirement at the age of 56. The one exception: Retired military air traffic controllers may qualify for appointment after reaching 31 years of age.

2. Pass Various Assessments to be Considered for a Federal Aviation Administration Training Program

The Federal Aviation Administration provides training and education for anyone interested in aviation safety. You can find more information on testing and training programs on the Federal Aviation Administration site here.

3. Complete a Federal Aviation Administration Training Program

Your training program will vary depending on the branch of aviation you want to join. These tests and training programs have specific guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration. The training can last anywhere from two to four years, teaching you how to read maps, look out for aviation weather patterns, understand federal regulations and airspace allowances, among other aviation-related information.

4. Apply for a Job

Once you complete your training, you'll have the credentials to begin applying for jobs. So, how can you find a job as an air traffic controller? The Federal Aviation Administration offers employment opportunities for individuals with previous air traffic control experience, as well as entry-level trainee air traffic control specialists. It does this through separate job vacancy announcements posted for a limited time throughout the year. Graduates of an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program can apply for such positions through USAJOBS.

If you still have questions about how to become an air traffic controller, get answers to your frequently asked questions about requirements here.

How Much Can You Make as an Air Traffic Controller?

First, you might be wondering, how much does it cost to become an air traffic controller? Depending on where you get you're training, the cost of your credits may be anywhere between $10,000 and $35,000, according to Learn.org. 

Fortunately, you can work on paying that off when you when you get a job, as the median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $124,540 in 2017, and the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $175,800, according to Chron. Of course, the annual salary for more advanced controllers who have completed on-the-job training varies with the location of their facilities and the complexity of the airspace in those facilities, among other factors, according to the  Federal Aviation Administration.

Federal employees like air traffic control specialists also receive a benefits package that rival those of the private sector. You can learn more about benefits here.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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