Air Traffic Controller Job Description

Air traffic controllers direct traffic in the air and on the ground at airports from control towers and area control centers. They instruct pilots landing or taking-off, managing the communication between control centers and the pilots and updating pilots of adverse conditions that might affect the flight’s safety. Most air traffic controllers work full-time, often rotating shifts between day, evening, and night as major control facilities operate on a 24-hour basis. Due to FAA regulations, air traffic controllers can’t work more than 10 continuous hours during a shift and must have at least nine hours of rest before their next shift starts. This job is suited to people with the ability to make decisions quickly and accurately.


Air Traffic Controller Duties and Responsibilities

Air traffic controllers take on a variety of duties depending on the kind of organization they work for. Based on job listings we analyzed, their duties typically include:

Issuing Landing and Take-off Instructions

Air traffic controllers issue instructions to pilots for landing and taking off to ensure they depart or land as safely as possible.

Monitoring Aircraft Movements

Air traffic controllers monitor and direct the movement of aircraft, both on the ground and while in the air, using computers, radar, and visual references.

Maintaining Communication

A key part of this job is to manage the communications between pilots and airport staff, by transferring control of departing flights to traffic control centers, and accepting control when flights arrive at the airport.

Providing Updates and Information to Pilots

Air traffic controllers keep pilots updated with new information, such as weather updates, runway closures, and any critical information that might affect the flight taking off or landing safely. They also alert airport response staff to aircraft emergencies.

Controlling Ground Traffic

Air traffic controllers manage all ground traffic as well, including baggage vehicles, airport workers, and taxiways, to ensure safety for all vehicles.


Air Traffic Controller Skills and Qualifications

Air traffic controllers are able to maintain their focus in all situations. Typically, employers require an air traffic controller certification, as well as the following abilities:

  • Communication skills – to listen to requests from the pilots and be able to give concise instructions
  • Decision-making abilities – to make fast, accurate decisions, such as when a pilot requests a change of altitude to avoid certain weather conditions, a controller has to respond quickly and efficiently so the plane can continue to travel safely
  • Math skills – to perform mental arithmetic quickly and accurately to work out speeds, distances, and times, and to recommend heading and altitude changes
  • Concentration – to stay focused in a room where several conversations are taking place at once – in an airport tower, several controllers will be conversing with pilots at the same time
  • Organizational skills – to coordinate multiple flights and tasks, guiding several pilots at once


Air Traffic Controller Education and Training

The minimum requirement to become an air traffic controller is an FAA air traffic controller certification. Most air traffic controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration, while others work for the military or for private air traffic control companies. Some employers require specific schooling requirements as well, such as a university degree in air traffic control, but this varies according to the organization. Air traffic controllers should have a strong knowledge of laws, regulations, and the procedures related to air traffic, towers, and radar, as well as of the safety procedures related to air traffic control.


Air Traffic Controller Salary and Outlook

The median annual salary for air traffic controllers is around $124,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Air traffic controllers in the 10th percentile earn around $67,000 annually, while the highest paid earn close to $176,000 a year. The higher end of the pay scale includes bonuses of up to $15,000 and profit sharing opportunities of up to $19,000.
Location and level of experience impact the pay level for this role, and most employers offer dental plans and medical insurance as part of their benefits package. The BLS predicts the growth rate for this sector to grow by three percent through 2026.


Helpful Resources

We’ve collected some of the best resources to help you explore a career as an air traffic controller:

Air Traffic Control Network – This LinkedIn group has over 10,000 members and is the ideal starting point for those new to the industry to make new contacts, learn of job opportunities, share knowledge, and stay up to date with industry developments.

“Being an Air Traffic Controller” – This blog post describes real-life experience working as an air traffic controller, along with a unique perspective from someone who performs these duties daily.

Fundamentals of Air Traffic Control – Now in its fifth edition, this book provides readers with a great foundation for how and why air traffic control systems work. Ideally suited to those new to the job, it covers a range of topics from control tower procedures to radar separation.

Air Traffic Control Career Prep – A comprehensive guide to a career as an air traffic controller, this book helps readers become familiar with the eight tests in the AT-SAT exam.


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