What skills or abilities do you need to become an air traffic controller?
To become an air traffic controller, a person must enroll in an
FAA-approved education program and pass a pre-employment test that
measures his or her ability to learn the controller's duties.
Exceptions are air traffic controllers with prior experience and
The pre-employment test is currently offered only to students in
the FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program or the
Minneapolis Community & Technical College, Air Traffic Control
Training Program. The test is administered by computer and takes
about 8 hours to complete. To take the test, an applicant must
apply under an open advertisement for air traffic control positions
and be chosen to take the examination. When there are many more
applicants than available positions, applicants are selected to
take the test through random selection.
In addition to the pre-employment test, applicants must have 3
years of full-time work experience, have completed a full 4 years
of college, or a combination of both. In combining education and
experience, 1 year of undergraduate study-30 semester or 45 quarter
hours-is equivalent to 9 months of work experience. Certain kinds
of aviation experience also may be substituted for these
Upon successful completion of an FAA-approved program,
individuals who receive school recommendation, meet the basic
qualification requirements (including being less than 31 years of
age) in accordance with Federal law, and achieve a qualifying score
on the FAA-authorized pre-employment test become eligible for
employment as an air traffic controller. Candidates also must pass
a medical exam, undergo drug screening, and obtain a security
clearance before they can be hired.
Upon selection, employees attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma
City, OK, for 12 weeks of training, during which they learn the
fundamentals of the airway system, FAA regulations, controller
equipment, and aircraft performance characteristics, as well as
more specialized tasks.
After graduation, candidates assigned to an air traffic control
facility are classified as "developmental controllers" until they
complete all requirements to be certified for all of the air
traffic control positions within a defined area of a given
facility. Generally, it takes new controllers with only initial
controller training between 2 and 4 years, depending on the
facility and the availability of facility staff or contractors to
provide on-the-job training, to complete all the certification
requirements to become certified professional controllers.
Individuals who have had prior controller experience normally take
less time to become fully certified. Controllers who fail to
complete either the academy or the on-the-job portion of the
training usually are dismissed.
Controllers must also pass a physical examination each year and
a job performance examination twice each year. Failure to become
certified in any position at a facility within a specified time
also may result in dismissal. Controllers also are subject to drug
screening as a condition of continuing employment.
Air traffic controllers must be articulate to give pilots
directions quickly and clearly. Intelligence and a good memory also
are important because controllers constantly receive information
that they must immediately grasp, interpret, and remember.
Decisiveness also is required because controllers often have to
make quick decisions. The ability to concentrate is crucial because
controllers must make these decisions in the midst of noise and
At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with
basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to the
position of ground controller, then local controller, departure
controller, and, finally, arrival controller. At an air route
traffic control center, new controllers first deliver printed
flight plans to teams, gradually advancing to radar associate
controller and then radar controller.
Controllers can transfer to jobs at different locations or
advance to supervisory positions, including management or staff
jobs, such as air traffic control data systems computer specialist,
in air traffic control and top administrative jobs in the FAA.
However, there are only limited opportunities for a controller to
switch from a position in an enroute center to a tower.
Controllers work a basic 40-hour week; however, they may work
additional hours, for which they receive overtime, or premium, pay
or equal time off. Because most control towers and centers operate
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, controllers rotate night and weekend
During busy times, controllers must work rapidly and
efficiently. Total concentration is required to keep track of
several planes at the same time and to make certain that all pilots
receive correct instructions. The mental stress of being
responsible for the safety of several aircraft and their passengers
can be exhausting.