Is It Easy to Be an Air Traffic Controller?

Working conditions for an air traffic controller are not easy.
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Working conditions for an air traffic controller are not easy.

Not everyone is cut out to be an air traffic controller. Their jobs are so important that if they couldn't work for some reason, airports would come to a standstill. If you're interested in a job with long hours, good pay and mandatory retirement at age 56, you may be a perfect candidate for this position. Air traffic controllers control the flow of air traffic, guiding planes to a perfect takeoff and monitoring them to ensure a smooth landing. However, there are hurdles to conquer entering this difficult position before you can monitor the friendly skies.


Unlike many other jobs, becoming an air traffic controller requires unique qualifications. A candidate needs to be a U.S. citizen and must also be under age 31 if she has no previous experience as an air traffic controller. Applicants must pass a background check, drug test and medical examination. Prior to employment, you must take an exam from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, and achieve a score of at least 70. There is also an interview process you must go through. Applicants with prior military experience as a controller have an easier path.

Education Needed

Recent high school graduates can take an easier path to become a controller by enrolling in an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative Program, called AT-CTI. The program represents a partnership between the FAA, colleges and universities. It's designed for non-engineering students and gives basic instructions on air traffic control. The program lasts two or four years, depending on the institution.

Skills Needed

Air traffic controllers spend their days monitoring radar equipment in semi-dark rooms. Controllers must be able to fully concentrate on the screens in a noisy environment. In addition to their powers of concentration, controllers must be good multitaskers. Controllers guide several planes at once, so an ideal candidate must be able to juggle multiple jobs at once. Being able to analyze and make decisions quickly is an important skill for this position. Although controllers spend most of their day seated staring at electronic equipment, they must stay physically fit. Controllers receive a physical exam each year that they must pass to stay employed.

Additional Information

Stress is a huge component of an air traffic controller’s job. Airports don't close, so control towers are manned 24 hours a day. This means working rotating shifts as well as working on holidays and weekends. Controllers carry a huge responsibility on their shoulders, so remaining alert at all times is a necessity. The mental stress of the job is the reason for the forced retirement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 90 percent of controllers belong to a union. Being in a union doesn’t protect them from the stress, but it can make some parts of the job easier, such as helping members receive better pay.

2016 Salary Information for Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers earned a median annual salary of $122,410 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, air traffic controllers earned a 25th percentile salary of $84,730, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $149,230, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 24,900 people were employed in the U.S. as air traffic controllers.

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