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How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

To become an air traffic controller, a person must be a U.S. citizen, complete an air traffic management degree from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified school, achieve a qualifying score on the FAA preemployment test, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy. Controllers with previous air traffic control experience, such as from the military, may not need to complete the FAA education requirements. Those without previous air traffic control experience must be younger than 31 to become an air traffic controller.

Controllers also must pass a physical exam each year and a job performance exam twice a year. In addition, they must pass periodic drug screenings.

Education and Training

There are two main pathways to becoming an air traffic controller:

Previous controller experience. Candidates with previous experience with the FAA or the U.S. Armed Forces are automatically eligible to apply for air traffic controller positions. They do not need to take the FAA preemployment test.

AT-CTI degree. Those without previous experience must obtain an air traffic management degree through the FAA Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI). AT-CTI schools offer 2- or 4-year degrees that teach courses in aviation and air traffic management.

Candidates who complete an AT-CTI program of study are automatically eligible to take the FAA preemployment test. Applicants who pass the test can then become eligible to enroll in a 2-month training course at the FAA Academy. The invitation to attend the training course is dependent on the number of available job openings.

After graduating from the Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they complete all requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller.


New air traffic controllers, referred to as developmental controllers, begin their careers by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to different positions within the control room.

As the developmental controllers master various duties, they earn increases in pay and advance in their training. Generally, it takes new controllers 2 to 4 years to complete the on-the-job training that leads to full certification. Those with previous controller experience may take less time to become fully certified.

Trainees who fail to complete the Academy or their on-the-job training are usually dismissed.

There are limited opportunities for a controller to switch from an en route position to an airport position. However, within these categories, controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or advance to supervisory positions.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. When pilots contact the control tower for instructions, air traffic controllers must listen carefully to their requests and respond by speaking clearly.

Concentration skills. Controllers must be able to concentrate in a room where multiple conversations occur at once. For example, in a large airport tower, several controllers may be speaking with several pilots at the same time.

Decision-making skills. Controllers must make quick decisions. For example, when a pilot requests a change of altitude, a controller must respond quickly so that the plane can avoid unnecessary turbulence.

Multitasking skills. Controllers must be able to coordinate the actions of multiple flights. For example, a controller may be required to guide several pilots through turbulent weather at the same time. 

Problem-solving skills. Controllers must be able to understand complex situations, such as the impact of changing weather patterns on a plane’s flight path. Controllers must be able to review important information and provide pilots with an appropriate solution.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition