Becoming An Air Traffic Controller: Requirements

Becoming An Air Traffic Controller: Requirements


Air traffic controllers are highly qualified professionals who control air traffic. They work at air traffic control towers, terminal radar approach control facilities, or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) center radar facilities. 

They control all aircraft movement in their airspace to reduce the risk of collisions and minimize delays. However, an air traffic controller must thoroughly understand the equipment, procedures, and regulations to keep the skies safe. 

Becoming an air traffic controller requires years of training, knowledge of aviation regulations, and continuous training throughout the controller's career. Furthermore, let's see the requirements to become an air traffic controller and what the job is all about.

Table Of Contents:

What Is The Job Of An Air Traffic Controller?

The FAA has been operating an Air Traffic Control System since 1968. These facilities are spread across the country and include radar facilities and other equipment, such as ground-based computer systems and navigational aids. 

The responsibility of these facilities is to provide continuous surveillance of their assigned areas. Try to imagine your local airport without an air traffic control tower and how chaotic it would be when multiple aircraft fly in the same airspace. 

These highly trained professionals make sure this doesn't happen. Air traffic controllers control the motion of aircraft to remain safely separated and avoid midair collisions. They provide information and clearances regarding airport altitudes, changes in flight plans, and locations of other aircraft. 

Controllers must have exceptional coordination skills while quickly exchanging information with pilots, airports, air routes, traffic control centers, and other control facilities.

However, specific responsibilities of an air traffic controller are:

  • Reconfirming the current weather conditions, obstacles, and flight plans of the aircraft 
  • Clearing aircraft to take off or land 
  • Signaling air traffic onto and off of a runway 
  • Identifying and warning other controllers of the potential hazard 
  • Clearing runway obstructions 
  • Coordinating with airport fire departments 
  • Monitoring areas near airports 
  • Receiving information from other pilots 
  • Maintaining the security of their area 
  • Assisting local officials

Types Of Air Traffic Controllers

Different facilities have different responsibilities and training requirements to become an air traffic controller. If you are interested in joining the field of air traffic controllers, it is good to know what the role is like in these different positions.

Aerodrome Controller

An aerodrome controller, also called a tower controller, is located in an air traffic control tower. They monitor and direct the flow of aircraft in and out of the airport.

Tower controllers are in charge of all takeoffs, landings, and aircraft movement within the airport's airspace. These controllers use visual aids such as lighting, runway markings, and airport signs.

They also use communications equipment to guide aircraft. Tower controllers need to speak clearly and distinctly to pilots while continuously multi-task.

Flight Data/Clearance Controller

A flight data/clearance controller separates aircraft on their assigned radar. They interpret flight progress strips and clearances from the control tower and issue instructions to pilots.

They also assist pilots with special requests, for example, requesting an alternate airfield or change in altitude.

Ground Control

Ground controllers provide information to pilots during taxi, takeoff, and landing. They clear aircraft to approach the runway and instruct them on landing procedures.

Ground controllers must listen carefully as they can easily miss words when dealing with a large volume of pilot transmissions.

Approach Controller

Approach controllers are responsible for the separation of aircraft that are in the terminal area. Approach controllers issue clearances to various aircraft types and determine their altitude restrictions.

Approach controllers use radar assistance and information from pilots and other control facilities. They may also guide planes to their final approach and departure paths at airports.

How Do You Become An Air Traffic Controller?

Air traffic controllers are highly trained professionals who must multi-task while directing hundreds of aircraft. Training to become an air traffic controller requires a lot of time and effort. 

They are essential in saving people's lives and saving billions of dollars in damages, which is why it's a very competitive field to get into. 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 at least 18 years of age 
  • Have a high school diploma or GED 
  • Be able to read, write, speak and understand the English language 
  • Complete a background investigation and drug screen 
  • Pass an FAA medical examination (if you're under 40 years old)
  • Pass the FAA Air Traffic Control Aptitude Test 
  • Have three years of college and military experience in areas such as aviation, math, or computer science 

The above requirements are for candidates applying for an air traffic control facility position. Candidates applying for a position as a military controller will have slightly different requirements. 

To apply for this job, you must first find out what facilities are hiring in your area and contact them directly. Once you become an air traffic controller, the training process can take four years. 

It is because you must first complete an FAA-approved training program and then pass a physical evaluation before becoming a certified air traffic controller.

What Is The Kind Of Training Required To Become An Air Traffic Controller?

As mentioned above, a standard training program to become an air traffic controller can take up to four years. The first two years are usually training in classrooms, and the second two years typically perform the job duties of an air traffic controller. This training is rated on a pass/fail basis.

The initial step of the training program is Fundamentals of Air Traffic Control (FATC). This course teaches candidates how to use radar, which is essential for effective navigation of aircraft both in and out of airports. 

Candidates learn how to interpret basic aviation weather reports and brief pilots on the weather conditions. They also learn how to give pilot instructions for takeoff and landing. This course is divided up into eight segments in which candidates must pass each component before continuing to the next one. 

Candidates must pass each segment with an 80% or higher score to continue training. The next step of the training program is Advanced Air Traffic Control (AATC) which is the "on-the-job" training part. 

Candidates must first complete an AATC Orientation Course, in which they learn about various air traffic control concepts. They also learn to find navigation, weather, and aircraft in distress.

After completing this course, candidates begin their on-the-job training. They are also required to take a Basic Flight Course during this time. It is to ensure that candidates have the necessary general knowledge of aviation to perform any duties of an air traffic controller. 

Candidates must pass this course with an 80% or higher score to continue with the training program. After passing all of these courses, candidates become certified air traffic controllers and apply for jobs at air traffic control facilities, including military positions in their branches.

Air Traffic Controller Salary In California And Florida

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the average salary for an air traffic controller in California is $54,777. In comparison, the average salary for an air traffic controller in Florida is $85,524 per year.

The salary for air traffic controllers can vary greatly depending on their level and experience. California's highest-paid air traffic controller makes at least $120,000 a year. Salaries typically go up as you move up to become an air traffic controller and get more experience. 

However, the additional benefits of working as an air traffic controller can often outweigh the average salary. Although there is no set rule for paying an air traffic controller, it is generally higher for those who work at private airports and military bases. 

It is also higher than those who work in smaller communities. A few national averages that agencies like the FAA use to calculate air traffic controllers' salaries in different parts of the country. According to the FAA, the average hourly wage is $82.60 per hour. 

Furthermore, the highest paying states are Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois, with an hourly salary of $92 an hour. Next to the salary, there are many additional benefits for the air traffic controller such as:


The most apparent benefit is Medical, Dental, and Vision insurance.

Retirement Plan

Pension plans are defined by law as a retirement plan that provides an income to an individual after they have stopped working. When air traffic controllers retire, they are eligible for the Federal Retirement Plan. 

This plan guarantees that they will receive a percentage of their salary if they haven't saved enough to live off in their retirement years.

Paid Holidays and Vacation

The Federal Labor Standards Act mandates that all employers give a minimum of 24 holidays to their employees every year. In addition, they must allow their employees to take one paid vacation day per year. 

Work Hours

The Federal Aviation Administration outlines strict rules for the maximum hour's air traffic controllers can work. Their hours cannot exceed 7 hours per day, and they are required to take at least 24 hours off each week.

Do Air Traffic Controllers Get Drug Tested?

Yes, air traffic controllers are subject to random drug testing. Air traffic control facilities keep the skies safe, so controllers must do their job well and keep track of the planes without any distractions. 

The FAA regulates this testing, and the facilities that employ controllers must follow its guidelines. However, the testing schedule for the same is as follows:

  • Random Testing: The FAA's random drug test mandate requires facilities to randomly test at least 5% of their controllers each month.
  • Post-Accident Testing: It requires facilities to do an immediate drug test if an employee has an accident in the facility's aircraft. Depending on the accident, it can be done on-site or off-site.
  • Return to Duty Testing: A drug test is also required after a controller returns from medical leave or leaves due to substance abuse.

If the controller tests positive for drugs, their job may be terminated or required to undergo rehabilitation. Furthermore, it has been proven that this testing has positively affected the air traffic control system. It is because the FAA testers can identify potential problems before they occur. It also helps raise awareness about drug use among controllers and other employees suffering from a similar issue.


As stated earlier, becoming an air traffic controller is quite extensive and detailed. You can only become one if you have an FAA-certified license. To get this license, you have to complete a process that lasts for years, and it takes a lot of hard work. 

However, the reward of becoming an air traffic controller is worth all of the effort that you have to put in. It is one of the high-quality jobs in the aviation industry and will make you feel good about assisting people out by keeping them safe as they travel around.


What are the job prospects of becoming an air traffic controller in the United States?

The job prospects for air traffic controllers and other aviation career positions are quite excellent and can be found nationwide. However, the most profitable job markets are in larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D. C. All have many airports that need qualified controllers to run the entire system.

What are the long-term career prospects for air traffic controllers?

For air traffic controllers, promotions are usually only given to qualified employees. Only after years of service and experience can you move up the ladder in this position. Furthermore, there is a significant need for air traffic controllers so that people do not have to worry about losing their jobs.

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