Air Traffic Controller Job Description
Air traffic controllers monitor and control air traffic to ensure the safety of planes and their passengers. They are also responsible for minimizing delays, providing pilots instructions during takeoff and landing, and monitoring aircraft as they travel from one place to another.
There are many different jobs that need to be done to keep planes safe in the air. Because each job is different, air traffic controllers normally specialize in performing one type of work. Here are the most common types of aircraft controllers:
Tower controllers are responsible for directing planes while they’re on the runway. They provide clearance for takeoff and landing, and help pilots navigate the runways as they move around the airport.
Radar controllers monitor the flow of planes as they enter and leave an airport’s airspace. They ensure that all planes remain a safe distance apart, and establish the sequence that planes are allowed to take off and land.
These air traffic controllers guide pilots during take off and landing.
En route controllers work at secure route control centers located throughout the country. Each center is assigned a geographic region, and they are responsible for monitoring that airspace. For instance, if two planes enter the airspace at the same altitude, these controllers will instruct one aircraft to change its altitude.
When a plane leaves one airspace it enters another one, and the responsibility of tracking the plane shifts from one route control center to another. The handoff process continues between route control centers until the aircraft is about 50 miles from an airport. At that point, responsibility shifts to the airport’s radar approach controllers.
Work Environment and Schedule
Almost all air traffic controllers are employed by the FAA. They normally work in control towers, route centers, and approach control facilities. Control towers and approach control facilities are located near large airports. Route centers are secure buildings located all over the country.
This can be a stressful occupation, especially when working during peak hours at a busy airport. In those cases, air traffic controllers have to monitor many aircraft at the same time while maintaining a high level of concentration.
Concentrating for hours at a time can be exhausting, and the stress can build up over many years. All air traffic controllers are required to retire by the time they’re 56, but they can retire as early as 50.
Most control centers and route centers are open 24 hours a day, so air traffic controllers rotate shifts between nights, days, and evenings. Working on weekends and holidays is also required.
How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
To become an air traffic controller, the first thing you will need to do is earn a degree in air traffic management through the FAA Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI). Before you enroll in any air traffic control program, you should check to make sure that it’s certified by the FAA. If it isn’t, you will be unable to find work, and your degree will be worthless. Here’s a list of programs certified by the FAA.
After you complete an AT-CTI program, you will need to earn a good score on the FAA preemployment test, and then complete a training course at the FAA Academy. FAA Academy training lasts two months. Since spots are limited, getting in can be competitive.
Once you graduate from the FAA Academy, you will be assigned to work at an air traffic control facility until all the requirements for certifications are met.
If you worked as an air traffic controller in the military, then you don’t need to worry about the FAA educational requirements — your experience can be enough to qualify you.
Each year, air traffic controllers have to pass a physical exam and a job performance exam. They are periodically tested for drugs, as well
Note: You cannot become an air traffic controller if you’re over 30 years old. You can continue working well beyond your 31st birthday, but you have to have experience before then.
There are currently 27,000 air traffic controllers in the United States, with 1,020 new air traffic controller job openings created each year.
Air Traffic Controller jobs are not expected to see much growth beyond their current levels in the next decade.
Air Traffic Controller Salaries
Air Traffic Controller salaries can vary depending on your experience, the location, company, industry, and benefits provided. Nationwide, most air traffic controllers make between $81,200 – $149,000 per year, or $39.06 – $71.62 per hour.