How to Become an Air Traffic Controller


If the following description sounds like you, then you be well suited for becoming an air traffic controller:


Those who excel in this field have excellent decision-making, problem solving, communication, and multi-tasking skills.


They are typically individuals who are able to endure large amounts of stress, and they are able to concentrate when there are a lot of things happening around them. They must also pass a rigorous assessment and training program to prove they are capable of handling the responsibilities of an air traffic controller.


Those who choose to become air traffic controllers are likely to be interested in a well-paying, challenging and validating career that is suited to this set of skills.


Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career in this field. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, a list of possible employers and much more!



Educational Requirements of This Career

Canada: In Canada, there are not currently any formal post-secondary educational requirements for becoming an air traffic controller, other than passing the Air Traffic Controller assessments and interview.


United States: Those who wish to become air traffic controllers in the United States must complete an air traffic management degree from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified school. They must also achieve a qualifying score on the FAA pre-employment test, and complete a training course at the FAA Academy.


Aspiring air traffic 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 in the United States.


Success Tip: Taking some coursework in computer operation/telecommunications technology can be helpful for this career.





What is an Air Traffic Controller?

Air traffic controllers are people that are trained to coordinate the safe, efficient and orderly movement of aircraft on the ground, at airports and within an assigned airspace.



General Job Description

Air traffic controllers manage the flow of airplanes in and out of an airport, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor airplanes as they travel through the skies.


These professionals are immediately concerned with the safety of departures, flights and arrivals, although they are simultaneously concerned with the efficient direction of these flights, in order to minimize delays.


Air traffic controllers must be able to effectively perform different duties for different airplanes at the same time, and they must be able to do so without compromising the quality of their work. For example, a controller might direct one plane on its landing approach while providing another plane with weather information.


Please Note: The specific job description of an air traffic controller can vary, depending on factors such as where they work, what their area of specialty is, how much training they have completed, and many others. 



General Job Duties Involved in This Work

• Alert search and rescue personnel for missing and overdue aircraft

• Provide direction to aircraft shortly after they depart or just before they arrive at an airport

• Use radar communication to track flights and provide directions to pilots during their flight

• Coordinate with firefighters, police, and paramedics during emergencies

• Give taxi and take off instructions to pilots

• Direct airport traffic so it flows smoothly and efficiently

• Ensure the safe separation and movement of departing, landing and taxiing aircraft

• Track all flights within a facility’s airspace by using radar



Types of Air Traffic Controllers

Tower Controllers: Also known as airport controllers, tower controllers are responsible for directing the movement of planes on the runway. This includes checking flight plans, clearing the pilot and crew for takeoff or landing. Tower controllers primarily work directly in an airport’s control tower.


Radar Approach/Departure Controllers: The primary concern of these air traffic controllers is managing the flow of airplanes coming arriving to and departing from the airport. They are responsible for ensuring that planes traveling within an airport’s airspace (40 mile radius or so) keep a safe distance apart. They also perform functions such as providing pilots with weather conditions and alerting search and rescue activities for missing or overdue aircraft. These controllers work in buildings known as terminal radar approach control centers (TRACONs).


Area Controllers: Also known as en-route controllers, are responsible for monitoring airplanes once they leave an airport’s airspace. These air traffic controllers are responsible for, and work at, any of the 21 air route traffic control centers in the United States, or one of the 7 large portions of Canadian airspace known as Flight Information Regions. 





Who Employs Air Traffic Controllers?

Canada: In Canada, air traffic controllers are employed by NAV CANADA. After their classroom and on-the-job training, they may be assigned to any air traffic control centre or tower in Canada.


United States: In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hires the vast majority of air traffic controllers. After graduating from the FAA Academy, air traffic control trainees are assigned to an air traffic control facility as developmental controllers until they complete all of the requirements for becoming a certified air traffic controller.


Application Process



To become an air traffic controller in Canada, candidates must take the following steps:


•Completion of an online application form

•Completion of two online tests

•Selected applicants are invited to participate in an assessment session, which takes a few hours to complete and costs around $200

•Selected candidates are invited to participate in an initial interview conducted by teleconference

•Successful candidates participate in an in-person interview conducted by operational managers

•Must pass a medical exam and security clearance

•Successful candidates are assigned to area controller, airport controller or flight service specialist training pools


United States


Air traffic control candidates with previous experience with the FAA or the U.S. Armed Forces are automatically eligible to apply for air traffic controller positions and do not need to take the FAA pre-employment test.


Candidates without previous experience must obtain a 2 or 4 year air traffic management degree through the FAA Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI).


Candidates who complete an AT-CTI program are automatically eligible to take the FAA pre-employment test. Applicants who pass the test can then become eligible to enroll in a 2-month training course at the FAA Academy.


Please Note: Only a limited number of Air Traffic Controller training positions become available each year in Canada and the United States. For example, only around 30-40 become available each year in Alberta.



Skills and Traits Needed to Succeed

In order to be effective as an air traffic controller, you need to posses a certain set of skills and personality traits. These skills and traits will not only allow you to perform your job duties with competence; they will allow you to overcome the challenges of this career, and enable you to maintain a positive attitude towards your work.


Being successful in this profession has a lot to do with the way in which you approach problems, handle pressure and adapt to changing situations. Many employers of air traffic controllers screen candidates using assessments to see if they have the necessary skills set. These skills include:


•Excellent shape-tracking abilities (able to follow an element on screen)

•Sequential memory skills (able to accurately follow a sequence of events)

•Able to make quick decisions about different activities

•Able to react with composure and focus while under pressure

•Mentally alertness


•Able to accept responsibility and accountability

•Able to handle details quickly and accurately

•Able to listen to, and communicate instructions with accuracy

•Able to concentrate in a room where multiple conversations occur at once

•Able to review important information and provide pilots with an effective solution

•Able to understand complex situations, such as the impact of changing weather patterns on a plane’s flight path



Typical Working Conditions

Hours of Work: Air traffic controllers typically work rotating shifts, as airports and air traffic control facilitates operate 24 hours a day. Because of these shifts, they are often required to work on evenings, weekends and holidays.


Work Setting: Air traffic controllers work in a few different settings; control towers, approach control facilities, or route and regional centers. Many tower and radar controllers work near large airports. En route and area controllers work in secure office buildings located across the Canada and the United States.


Work Environment: Radar controllers typically work in semi-dark rooms. They must follow and control airplanes that appear as blips on a screen. Air traffic controllers must make quick decisions and often work under considerable pressure, as their work affects the safety of airplanes and their passengers.



Job Postings - Current Opportunities

Our job board below has "air traffic controller" postings in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.



Average Salary Level

The salary level of air traffic controllers can vary, depending on factors such as whether or not they are trainees, their level of competence, which shift they work, where they work, and many others.


Air Traffic Controller Salary Canada (Alberta): According to NAV CANADA, salaries for air traffic controllers range from $66,000 to $142,000 a year. Trainees earn about $33,400 to $38,900 during on-the-job training (2014 figures - latest figures available as of May 27, 2019).


Air Traffic Controller Salary United States: According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the starting salary for new air traffic controllers is $37,070 (2010 data). The salary level of air traffic controllers increases as they complete each new phase of training. According to the FAA, controllers who have already completed on-the-job training have an average annual salary of $118,000 (2010 data). For all air traffic controllers, including trainees, the average annual salary is $104,000 (2010 figures).



Similar Careers in Our Database

Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Air Traffic Controller, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.


Airline Customer Service Agent

Airport Manager

Supply Chain and Logistics Manager

Traffic Engineer

Transportation Planner




Please consult the references below to find more information on the various aspects of a career as an air traffic controller:


Occupations in Alberta:Air Traffic Controller.” (March 13, 2019). ALIS website - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Occupational Outlook Handbook - Transportation and Material Moving:Air Traffic Controllers.” (September 4, 2019). United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Trainee Air Traffic Controllers:About the Role.” (n.d.). NATS website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Career Fields:Aviation Careers.” (July 31, 2019). Federal Aviation Administration website. Retrieved October 21, 2019.



Scholarships for Relevant Fields of Study

The 'Relevant Fields of Study' section below shows college and university majors that are relevant to a career as an Air Traffic Controller. You can search for scholarships matched to those fields of study on our Computer Science Scholarships, Mathematics Scholarships and Physics Scholarships pages.


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!



Relevant Fields of Study

Studying one of the university majors listed below can be helpful if you plan to work as an air traffic controller. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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