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9 things you should know before applying to become an air traffic controller

Air traffic controller.


  • Becoming an air traffic controller can be a high-stress job, but the work comes with good pay and benefits.
  • Air traffic controller Cedrick Earley explained to Insider that he enjoys the challenges of the job.
  • Controllers must go through rigorous training and testing and have mandatory retirement at age 56.

Being an air traffic controller is an extremely high-stress job, with workers responsible for the movement and direction of thousands of lives onboard commercial and general aviation aircraft every day. 

There are over 14,000 controllers employed under the Federal Aviation Administration that operate out of some 700 facilities across the US, according to the agency. These employees handle everything from jumbo airliners to tiny prop planes.

For a lot of people, becoming a controller is a dream job, but landing the role is not easy and must be done through specific channels, like applying to the FAA’s periodic job openings or joining the military.

For those that apply through the FAA, successful applicants must undergo months of extensive training and pass mandatory tests before being officially hired, like an aptitude test, a skills assessment, and physical and psychological exams. The training is demanding, with about 50% of aspiring Air Force controllers washing out, according to the agency.

FAA spokesperson Tammy Jones told Insider the agency posts ATC jobs throughout the year based on the organization’s hiring goal and the number of applicants currently in the pipeline, among other factors.

Jones also explained there are two types of job postings: “experienced hire,” which is open at the beginning of the year, and “off-the-street,” which is posted in the summer months. However, additional openings are posted as needed.

While the salary and benefits of working for the federal government may be enticing, becoming an air traffic controller can be a high-stress and busy job, so interested applicants should understand what to expect before diving in.

Insider spoke with FAA controller Cedrick Earley to discuss what it is like to work the job. Here are nine things you should know before applying to become an air traffic controller.

You don’t need a college degree.

For people looking for a high-salary job that doesn’t require a college degree, ATC is a good option. To be eligible, off-the-street applicants only need to meet minimum requirements, like the ability to speak English, be under the age of 31 (more on that later), and have three years of progressive work experience, or a combination of work and school, according to the FAA’s August job posting.

These applicants, if accepted, will spend up to five months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City where training and testing occurs. However, some applicants come from other careers that place them in the “experienced hire” category, like the military.

Earley told Insider he went through the Air Force to become a controller instead of going through the FAA. He worked for the military for six years and has been a controller with the FAA for four years now.

“[Air Force] is a different track,” he said. “The quality of training you receive from the Air Force is equivalent to what you would get if you went through the route with the FAA in Oklahoma.”

You have to be younger than 31 when you start.

All ATC applicants must be age 30 or younger on the closing date of the application period to qualify for the position, according to the FAA. This is because the agency has determined through extensive research that the older someone is, the harder is it for them to complete the rigorous training.

However, those that already have air traffic control experience can be hired up to 35 years of age, according to the agency. 

You have to go through a lot of testing and training.

Whether you become a controller through the FAA or military, you will have to undergo months-long training and pass aptitude, physical, physiological, and skill tests. These exams assess applicants’ health and their ability to train for and perform the job.

Initial tests are pass/fail, according to the agency, and failing certain exams will eliminate applicants from the hiring process.

You won’t necessarily work in the tower.

Air traffic controllers are not just confined to the airport tower but can also work in a number of stations around and between major airports. For example, Earley works in the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility (TRACON) in Memphis and is responsible for controlling aircraft leaving the airport for their next destination, as well as directing flights into the airport for a quick and safe landing. 

Employees can also work in one of the 21 air route traffic control centers throughout the US, which direct aircraft that are en route to their destination.

Air traffic controllers at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow.Air traffic controllers.

Sergei Karpukhin/Getty Images

The work can be high-stress and sometimes boring.

Being an air traffic controller can be stressful due to the heavy workload and high-consequence environment, however, the job can also be dull and boring depending on how busy the skies are.

According to Forbes contributor and former air traffic controller Michele Robson, the job can be quiet at night but controllers must always be alert and ready to work at any hour on shift.

While some controllers find the job extremely stressful, Earley said that isn’t the case for him.

“It is not particularly stressful for me, and I actually enjoy the challenge of coming in every day to a new puzzle and figuring out the best way to get the job done as efficiently as possible.”

However, Earley admitted that that work keeps him on his toes.

“Controllers are always learning on the job, like updating and refining the processes, or learning new rules and procedures,” he explained. “It is a job where you always have to change and adapt.” 

Safety is the top priority.

Air traffic controllers are responsible for thousands of lives every day, so safety is the most important aspect of the job. According to Earley, there are several things workers do to ensure nothing is missed.

“I work in front of a radar scope, and it can get busy at times, so I am not supposed to work in position more than two hours at a time, so we get a break to keep us refreshed,” he said. “We also do not work more than 10 hours in one day, and there is a certain amount of hours we have to be off before we can work again.”

He also explained that there are redundancies in the job to elevate safety.

“Everyone is actually able to see what is going on with any particular person’s work at the time, so it is one team, one fight,” he said. “If we notice something is a little out of sorts, we can bring that to the controller’s attention and they can fix it before it becomes a bigger problem. We always monitor and police each other, and there are also supervisors in the room that oversee the entire operation.”

You make a good salary with benefits, but the work schedule can be inconsistent.

Working for the federal government comes with a good salary and benefits, like paid leave and health insurance. According to the FAA, the average annual salary for a controller in 2021 was $138,556.

In a viral TikTok video, air traffic controller Shannon Lyman explained her annual salary is $145,277 and it is increased each year depending on her collective bargaining agreement.

Earley explained to Insider that the salary and benefits provide a good work-life balance.

“It’s a job that pays me well and allows me to support my family,” he said. “I’m also able to take leisure time for myself, like spending time with my daughter.”

However, he also said his schedule is not the regular 9-5.

“I do have some shifts I work from midnight to 8 a.m., as well as some scattered 12-8 shifts, so it rotates,” he said. “I always know what my hours are each day, but it is not always at the same time. It is consistently inconsistent.”

Bridgeport Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut.Bridgeport Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut.

Taylor Rains/Insider

You know your schedule for the entire year.

According to Earley, air traffic controllers know their work schedule a year in advance.

“When we set our schedules up, we bid what we want for the next year, and then we are awarded our full schedule for the year,” he said. “It helps in terms of planning our leave.”

He also explained that the schedule is just for one year and controllers can change it come the following year.

You can retire at 56.

All air traffic controllers must retire at 56 due to the higher possibility of memory or hearing loss, inattentiveness, or reduced eyesight in older individuals, according to the agency.

However, the 56 age cut-off only applies to those actively working traffic, so controllers who are not yet ready to retire can take a desk or management job instead, according to Early.

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