Air Traffic Controllers


Employment Prospects


Approximately 22,390 air traffic controllers work in the United States. Nearly all are employed by the federal government. Most work for the FAA, although a small number work in such areas as the Department of Defense, or for local airports.

Starting Out

The first step in becoming an air traffic controller is taking the written civil service exam, followed by a one-week screening process. Acceptance is on a highly competitive basis. High grades in college or strong work experience are considered essential. Experience in related fields, including those of pilots, air dispatch operators, and other positions with either the civil airlines or the military service will be important for those with—and especially for those without—a college degree. Actual air control experience gained in military service may be a plus. However, civil aviation rules are quite different from military aviation rules. Because the FAA provides complete training, applicants with strong skills and abilities in abstract reasoning, communication, and problem solving, as well as the ability to learn and to work independently, will have the best chance of entering this field.

After they graduate from the FAA Academy, trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers. They work at this facility until they complete the requirements to become a certified air traffic controller.

Advancement Prospects

After becoming a controller, those who do particularly well may reach the level of supervisor or manager. Many others advance to positions with even more air control responsibilities, and some might move into the top administrative jobs within the FAA. Competitive civil service status can be earned at the end of one year on the job and career status after the satisfactory completion of three years of work in the area.

In the case of both airport control specialists and en route control specialists, the responsibilities become more complex with each successive promotion. Controller trainees generally begin at the FG-1 level and advance by completing certification requirements for the different air traffic control specialists (FAA is not governed by the General Schedule pay system). New hires at an airport control tower usually begin by communicating flight data and airport conditions to pilots before progressing through the ranks of ground controller, local controller, departure controller, and, lastly, arrival controller. At an en route center, trainees begin by processing flight plans, then advance to become radar associate controllers, and, finally, radar controllers.

After becoming fully qualified, controllers who exhibit strong management, organizational, and job skills may advance to become area supervisors and managers and control tower or flight service station managers. Employees in the higher grades may be responsible for a number of different areas, including coordinating traffic control activities within the control area, supervising and training en route traffic controllers or airport traffic controllers in lower positions, and managing workers in various aeronautical agencies. These positions generally become available after three to five years of fully qualified service.

Tips for Entry

Read publications such as The Journal of Air Traffic Control to learn more about the field.

Visit the following Web sites for job listings: and

Join the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to increase your chances of landing a job and receiving fair pay for your work.