If you’re looking for a well-paying career that doesn’t require a great deal of formal college education, you may be wondering how to become an air traffic controller.
What Is an ATC?
Air traffic controllers are transportation professionals who direct the movement of airplanes and jets from the ground. The work they do ensures safe landings and takeoffs.
The role of an air traffic controller is immensely important for the safety of air transportation. Without their guidance and communication, planes could collide on the runways and in the sky. These collisions and even near misses could cause chaos, destruction and possibly a lot of injuries or even deaths.
The job of an air traffic controller requires considerable technical knowledge. It’s also a high-pressure job. To prepare to become an air traffic controller, you should plan to get a college education.
Aspiring air traffic controllers have options when it comes to their education. They can prepare for this role with different levels of education. Air traffic controllers can also consider different majors.
Life With an Air Traffic Controller Degree
By and large, air travel in the United States is exceptionally safe. In fact, it’s the safest form of long-distance travel, according to the International Air Transport Association. This impressive safety record is due in large part to air traffic controllers. Air traffic controllers work behind the scenes to coordinate safe air travel.
What Air Traffic Controllers Do
Air traffic controllers are the personnel who communicate with pilots from the ground to keep aircraft in the sky or on the ground far enough apart from each other – and from other ground traffic – to prevent collisions. Every duty an air traffic controller does is for the purpose of keeping planes safely separated from one another to avoid an accident. The work air traffic controllers perform also helps to keep planes taking off and landing on time to prevent unnecessary flight delays.
From the ground, air traffic controllers review flight plans and instruct pilots where and when to take off or land a plane. They must coordinate the movements of several planes at a time. They also have to take into account the movements of ground traffic, such as vehicles moving baggage and airport employees.
During flights, air traffic controllers update pilots on weather conditions and runway closures. En route controllers communicate with passing planes on the way to their destinations.
In the case of any emergency, air traffic controllers are the first to know – and to alert airport staff to the situation.
The Skills Required to Become an Air Traffic Controller
Successful air traffic controllers must be well-organized. They need to be good at mathematical calculations. Becoming an air traffic controller also requires you to have excellent skills in the following areas, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
- Problem-solving skills
- Communication skills
- Decision-making skills
This necessary role in the aviation industry requires knowledge of and competencies in a variety of fields. Aspiring air traffic controllers need a thorough understanding of transportation methods. They should be familiar with public safety and security practices. Knowledge of training and education methods is also valuable.
Although working in an air traffic control facility isn’t like working in a retail store or otherwise working with the public, having some customer and personal service skills can also be valuable. Air traffic controllers in the United States usually need to be fluent in the English language (both spoken and written).
How Much Do Air Traffic Controllers Make?
There’s no question that part of the appeal of a job as an air traffic controller is its earning potential. Because their job is so essential to the safety of air travel, air traffic controllers must undergo substantial training and education – but they also have the potential to eventually earn high wages.
Salary Potential for Air Traffic Controllers
How much do air traffic controllers make? While entry-level air traffic controllers start out at more modest salaries, the median salary for the air traffic controller occupation is in the six figures.
In 2021, the median salary for all air traffic controller jobs was $129,750, according to the BLS. The best-paid 10 percent of air traffic controllers in the United States earned more than $185,990 per year. Even air traffic controllers at the 10th percentile of earnings for the occupation reported an annual salary of $71,880.
Air traffic controller salaries vary a great deal by industry of employment. The median salary for ait traffic controllers working for the federal government in 2021 amounted to $137,380. For those working in the support activities for air transportation industry, the median salary was much lower, at $79,580.
Fortunately, more than 90 percent of air traffic control specialists work for the federal government – namely, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This means that the higher median salary applies to the vast majority of the occupation.
Benefits for FAA Air Traffic Controllers
Because most air traffic controllers work for the federal government, the majority of air traffic controllers are eligible for federal benefits. Benefits offered to FAA employees include the following:
- Paid time off
- Health insurance benefits
- Life insurance
- A pension plan
- A retirement savings plan with an employer match
In addition to the high median salary, air traffic controllers typically enjoy the protection of being part of a labor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). This challenging job has its share of stressful moments. However, it’s exciting as well as financially lucrative. When you become an air traffic controller, you will know that the work you did every single day of your career played a part in keeping passengers and crew members safe.
The location in which an air traffic controller works plays a role in their earning potential. The states where air traffic controllers earned the most money as of 2022 were Virginia, New Hampshire, Georgia, Colorado and Texas. The average wage for air traffic controllers in all of these states is $10,000 or more than the overall median salary for the occupation, according to the BLS. The average annual salary for Virginia air traffic controllers was nearly $30,000 more than the $130,840 overall average salary.
Do Air Traffic Controllers Need a Degree?
Air traffic controller schooling consists of a few different phases. Most air traffic controllers today will prepare for this career by pursuing some sort of undergraduate college degree that meets guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration. Air traffic controller training, both at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and on the job, are part of preparing for this career path.
Do You Need a Degree to Become an Air Traffic Controller?
How necessary is a college degree for an air traffic controller? You don’t technically need a degree to be an air traffic controller.
Prospective air traffic controllers should earn a two-year or four-year college degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. These programs are designed specifically to meet FAA guidelines. During these programs, students will study a variety of aviation subjects, including airspace, weather, clearances, federal regulations and how to read maps.
In fact, the largest share of industry experts surveyed – 36%– responded that a high school diploma was the level of education required to become an air traffic controller as of 2023, according to O*NET. The next most common response was a postsecondary certificate, which 21% of the field reported having. Another 20% of air traffic controllers have a bachelor’s degree.
You might not need a degree to become an air controller, strictly speaking, but you do need special training and professional certification. One of the most popular ways to become an air traffic controller is to complete some of your air traffic control training as part of a college degree program. The BLS recommends that air traffic controllers pursue at least an associate’s degree to qualify for entry-level employment opportunities
The Paths You Could Take to Become an Air Traffic Controller
The answer to the question “How to become an air traffic controller?” is more complicated than whether you need a college education or what degree or major you should pursue.
Although the BLS currently lists an associate’s degree as the required education to become an air traffic controller, there are multiple potential paths to this occupation.
Those paths include:
- An associate’s degree
- A bachelor’s degree
- A degree from an FAA-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI)
- Three years of progressively responsible work experience
- Specialized work experience
- A combination of postsecondary education and work experience
How can over a third of the occupation have only a high school diploma when three out of the four methods of becoming an air traffic controller involve some form of education? If you insist on pursuing this career without a degree, you’re going to have to spend at least three years gaining work experience and pass the same entrance exams and training as candidates who did go to college.
FAA Requirements for Air Traffic Controller Jobs
Your education is only part of the requirements to become an air traffic controller. The FAA also establishes other requirements, including:
- Age: Air traffic controllers must generally be hired between the ages of 18 and 30 years old
- United States citizenship
- A clean record as determined by a security investigation and criminal background check
- Passing a medical examination and drug screening
- Speaking English fluently, so that you can be easily understood over radio communications
- Passing the FAA pre-employment test
If you want to be an air traffic controller, you may need to be open to relocating – potentially across the country. If nothing else, you should expect to travel to Oklahoma City for at least a few weeks (and possibly months) to attend FAA Academy training. FAA Academy training is an important part of the process of how to become an air traffic controller.
The FAA training program for new air traffic controllers encompasses training in the fundamentals of air traffic control as it pertains to your role (for new hires, usually tower controllers). Established air traffic controllers may undergo training in more advanced topics at the FAA Academy as they progress through their careers. The FAA Academy educates approximately 1,500 new air traffic controller trainees annually in the classroom, in labs and using air traffic control simulators.
What to Expect From an Air Traffic Controllers Degree Program
The coursework you will take to prepare for an air traffic control degree program depends on which path you choose.
You could opt to pursue a specialized degree program in this field. Alternatively, you could start your career preparation with a degree program in a more general area of study.
A Specialized Air Traffic Controller Degree Curriculum
If you already know you want to become an air traffic controller, a specialized degree program will best prepare you for work in air traffic facilities. Specialized schooling for air traffic controller jobs usually means an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program that is approved by the FAA.
FAA-approved AT-CTI programs may confer bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees, the FAA reported. Generally, bachelor’s degrees include more extensive coursework in aviation and air traffic control than associate degrees. In particular, AT-CTI schools for air traffic control that award bachelor’s degrees encompass more extensive management coursework. Bachelor’s degree programs may also include more general education coursework in the curriculum.
In an associate’s degree program in air traffic control, students are likely to take an introductory course in air traffic control. Other subjects commonly covered in air traffic controller schools include:
- Air traffic control regulations
- Control tower operations
- Terminal radar
- Aviation weather
- Experiential flight or simulated flight
A bachelor’s degree program in air traffic management will cover many of these same topics. However, at this level of schooling for air traffic controller, the curriculum includes more advanced coursework in these areas. Bachelor’s degrees for air traffic controllers may also include coursework in the following:
- Airport management
- Airline management
- Collaborative air traffic management
- En route radar operations
- Non-radar operations
At the bachelor’s level of study, air traffic control schools may also cover some of the business aspects of the field, such as studies in management principles, as well as aerospace safety and air traffic management safety.
Air traffic controllers rely on computers, radar systems and their own visual observations to determine when it is safe for aircraft to move. This means that students pursuing air traffic controller degrees need to learn a variety of technology skills. O*NET reported that air traffic controllers must develop the tech skills to use flight control software such as the following:
- Center TRACON Automation System programs
- En Route Descent Advisor (EDA) programs
- Traffic management advisor (TMA) programs
- Multi-center traffic management advisor (McTMA) programs
Additionally, air traffic controllers should learn to use other types of expert system software, including automated radar terminal systems (ARTS) and advanced technologies and oceanic procedures (ATOP).
More than 30 schools now offer FAA-approved AT-CTI programs as part of the FAA Collegiate Training Initiative as of 2023.
Bachelor’s Degree Options for Air Traffic Controller Careers
Suppose you don’t want to lock yourself into such a narrow field. After all, a degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program is valuable for becoming an air traffic controller but doesn’t offer much in the way of job opportunities outside the aviation industry. Prospective air traffic controllers can also begin preparing for this career with a more versatile college education.
What are your best options if you decide to prepare for your air traffic controller career by choosing the bachelor’s degree route? Most air traffic controllers who approach the profession from this path pursue degrees in transportation, engineering or business, according to the BLS.
Transportation and Aviation
Programs of study in transportation sciences and technologies subjects include degree programs in transportation, logistics and supply chain management. Students of these programs often take courses in the following:
- Freight management
- Logistics management
- Supply chain technologies
- Legal concepts for transportation and logistics management
- Airline, airport and seaport management
Core business courses round out a transportation management curriculum. These courses include:
- Principles of accounting
- Foundations of finance
- Introduction to marketing
- Management principles
Some schools separate their transportation degree programs by type of transportation. For example, a college may distinguish between maritime (boat) transportation and aviation (air) transportation. Naturally, aspiring air traffic controllers enrolling in programs that specialize in one type of transportation should opt for the aviation specialization.
Another major to consider to become an air traffic controller is aviation science or aviation management. Students majoring in aviation science management will take classes in the following areas:
- Air traffic control methods
- General aviation management
- Airport management
- Carrier management
- Aviation law
- Aviation safety
- Aviation weather
- Fieldwork experience in aviation and air traffic control
Aviation and transportation aren’t the only majors that align with a career in air traffic control centers. Engineering is one example of a field of study that’s relevant to working in air traffic control centers. Air traffic controllers work with complex computer software and communications equipment. Majoring in engineering can help students develop the competencies to use these tools and technologies and to learn new evolving software programs required for their work in air traffic facilities. Further, getting engineering designs like building, bridges and vehicles right is critical for preventing accidents. As such, engineers, like air traffic controllers, are under considerable pressure. In both of these occupations, doing the job well is necessary to keep people safe.
This field of study is best for students who enjoy math and science. Engineering majors can’t shy away from taking mathematics and science courses. The practice of engineering design draws upon the concepts and calculations of math and science.
The field of engineering encompasses several different disciplines. Some of the engineering degree options that most closely pertain to transportation science include the following:
- Civil engineering
- Environmental engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Construction engineering
One branch of engineering, aerospace engineering, is closely related to the field of aviation. The discipline of aerospace engineering concerns the design and development of aircraft and spacecraft.
Can a business degree prepare you for becoming an air traffic controller? While this major isn’t as closely related to air traffic controllers’ work, it’s still relevant. Remember, transportation management and logistics programs often include business coursework.
When you go for a bachelor’s degree in business, you will develop a foundation in management strategies and operations management techniques. However, you will be lacking in terms of coursework directly related to the aviation or transportation industry. If you choose this path, just remember that you will need to complete some sort of FAA training program and will probably need to cultivate progressively responsible work experience before you can become an air traffic controller. You may benefit from pursuing an air traffic controller training program that builds upon the foundation of a bachelor’s degree.
Getting Air Traffic Controller Certification
A degree alone isn’t enough to qualify you to begin working as an air traffic controller. You will also need to go through an FAA Academy training program. Through an FAA training program, you can acquire your Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate, the BLS reported. To do this, you will have to take a pre-employment exam.
Once hired as new air traffic control specialists, candidates will go through a two- to five-month training program at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. FAA Academy training includes both classroom lectures and experiential work using air traffic control simulators.
After completing the program, these candidates are considered developmental controllers. Newly qualified developmental controllers must cultivate their skills over two to four years of on-the-job training. Once they have gained sufficient knowledge and skills through on the job training, they can finally attain their Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate.
You can sit for the Air Traffic Skills Assessment (ATSA) – formerly known as the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) Exam – before you graduate from a bachelor’s degree program. However, you generally must be within 12 months of graduation from the program. This exam evaluates prospective trainees’ decision-making ability, spatial awareness, multitasking capabilities and working memory. If candidates pass the test, they can begin applying for air traffic controller jobs. Aspiring air traffic controllers should begin studying for the exam at least a month before taking the test, although beginning studying even earlier may be a good idea.
If you get a passing score on the pre-employment test, you may be classified as “best qualified,” “well qualified,” or “qualified.” Candidates who attain a score in one of these categories can begin applying for air traffic controller jobs. If you don’t get a passing score on the Air Traffic Skills Assessment or Air Traffic Selection and Training Exam, you will be categorized as “not referred.” In this case, you’re not eligible to be hired as an air traffic controller. You would have to retake the exam and get a passing score to move forward with your application.