Start Your Career As An Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers work in three areas, tower, terminal and en route controllers. Learn the federal requirements to be an air traffic controller.

Air traffic controllers are in charge of coordinating when planes take off and land at airports. They also work with pilots during flights to ensure a safe flight. Air traffic controllers also work with ground traffic at airports, such as maintenance employees and drivers in baggage vehicles. If there is any kind of aircraft emergency, the air traffic controller acts as a first responder.

Controllers work in one of three positions. The most common are tower controllers. Tower controllers work in tall towers located inside the airport. They handle air traffic up to 30 miles out. They are also responsible for giving general take off instructions to pilots. Terminal radar controllers work inside of a radar room. They monitor airspace up to 50 miles from the airport. The last group is en route controllers. These employees work in one of the 24 air traffic centers throughout the United States. They are responsible for assisting pilots during the bulk of a flight.

Becoming an Air Traffic Controller

There are many steps to becoming an air traffic controller. It is one of the higher paying jobs, with a starting salary of around $50,000, but more experienced controllers make as much $130,000 each year. How much you make partially depends on where you work and whether you are a tower, radar or en route controller.

There are a limited number of air traffic controller positions available. At a minimum, you need three years of experience in any aviation related field. To stand out among other applicants, you are encouraged to get at least a bachelor’s degree. Your degree must be certified by the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI). The following subjects are covered when you pursue an aviation degree:

  • Airspace and airport safety protocols.

  • Federal regulations.

  • Using specialized aviation equipment.

  • Understanding weather patterns and how they affect flight paths.

In addition to the education requirements, you must be a U.S. citizen and pass a medical evaluation, drug screening and a background check. The most unique requirement to becoming an air traffic controller is the age requirement. You must complete a training course from the FAA Academy before turning 31.

The cost of completing your aviation training greatly varies depending on the college you attend. On average, you can expect to pay between $10,000 and $35,000, before applying any financial aid.

Qualifying Tests

Once you complete your training, the next step to becoming an air traffic controller is passing the Air Traffic Selection and Training Exam. You must have a letter of recommendation from your school to take the test. As part of the test, you must also undergo a FAA pre-employment test, which reviews your fitness and personality. If you pass both of these tests, you are eligible for the final course of training from the FAA Academy. This final program takes anywhere from two to five months, based on your previous training and what kind of air traffic controller you want to become.


Once you complete the FAA training program, you are almost ready to become an air traffic controller. Before you officially begin your career, you must gain practical experience. The FAA assigns you to an air traffic control facility, where you work as a developmental controller. As a developmental controller, you provide basic airport and flight information to pilots. Once you gain enough experience, you may take a final certification exam. The exam is divided into two sections, a knowledge test followed by a practical exam. Typically, you receive two to four years of training before taking the final certification exam.

Purdue University

Purdue University is one of the top aviation programs in the United States. There are many aviation paths to choose from, including aeronautical engineering technology, aviation management and airport management and operations. The school also offers a master’s program for aviation and aerospace management as well as a PhD program for aviation technology. The college offers many internship and job opportunities for future air traffic controllers. It is also one of the more affordable college, with tuition typically costing around $10,000.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Embry-Riddle is the oldest aviation school in the United States. The school offers a mix of in-person and online classes. The school also makes special accommodations for students who are working or in the military. Embry-Riddle is also an activate participate in the field of aviation, with many research projects taking place at the school. As a result, students get experience with the most up to date aviation technology. Tuition is normally priced between $35,000 and $40,000.

Lewis University

Lewis University is located right near the headquarters for United Airlines, as well as O’Hare International. As a result, the school attracts many aviation experts. Many of the professors previously worked in an aviation career. Students also benefit from some of the best networking opportunities. In some cases, students are recruited right from the aviation program before they graduate. The average cost of tuition is close to $35,000.