All About Being An Air Traffic Controller

Being an air traffic controller can be a really nice career. However, there are also many challenges that come along with this job.

Consequently, you should inform yourself properly before you finally decide for going this career path.

In this article, I show you everything you need to know about an air traffic controller career.

Not only will I give you detailed information about the salary you can earn, but I will also show you the career prospects, promotion opportunities, educational requirements and much more.

After reading this article, you will be better able to decide whether you still want to pursue an air traffic controller career or if you rather want to go for a different job.

Without further ado, let’s get right into it!

Table of Contents

What does an Air Traffic Controller do?

Air traffic controllers work on airports and make sure that airplanes don’t collide with each other.

They are crucial for assuring a high level of safety of air traffic so that passengers can be sure to get safe from A to B by plane.

Duties of an Air Traffic Controller

  • Assurance of the safety of air travel
  • Communication with pilots
  • Communication with ground staff
  • Focus on efficient and safe air travel operations
  • Making sure that planes start and land according to plan
  • Communication of changes to all involved parties
  • Giving takeoff instructions to pilots
  • Landing instructions
  • Monitoring and tracking the movement of airplanes
  • Authorizing changes in flight paths
  • Reporting of unusual flight behavior to authorities
  • Providing weather updates to pilots

What a Typical Day looks like as an Air Traffic Controller?

As an air traffic controller, you will have many different shifts. While you might work during the day most of the time, you will also have to work evening or night shifts from time to time.

Your shift will usually start in the morning between 7 and 9 a.m. After getting some basic instructions from your boss, you will get to work.

Your main responsibility will be to communicate important information to all involved parties so that accidents will become as unlikely as possible.

This means that you will have to monitor the movements of planes closely on the radar to avoid any collisions.

It also means that you will have to stay focused all the time.

Since the job of an air traffic controller is quite demanding, you will also have to take breaks frequently to reload your batteries.

Also your shift will be rather short and while most other people will work at least 8 hours per day, your workday will often be shorter.

In fact, it is quite common for air traffic controllers to only work 6 – 7 hours per day. After your shift is over, you will not take any work back to your home.

Instead, you can really enjoy your leisure and don’t have to fear getting calls from your boss to do additional work as it is the case in many other jobs out there.

Air Traffic Controller Salary 2021

Air traffic controller salary brackets 2021

Salary BracketsSalary (per year)Salary (per hour)
Top 10 %> $189,000> $93,27
Top 25 %$138,000 – $156,000$67.48 – $76.44
Bottom 25 %$98,000 – $110,000$48.57 – $53.85
Bottom 10 %$76,000 – $85,000$37.25 – $42.11
Range$76,000 – $233,000$37.25 – $115.82
Average$124,000$61.86

Air traffic controller salary 2021 by expert level

Level of ExperienceSalary (per year)Salary (per hour)
Entry level$76,000 – $88,000$37.35 – $43.34
Junior$85,000 – $98,000$42.17 – $48.62
Professional$97,000 – $123,000$48.24 – $60.84
Senior Professional$108,000 – $144,000$53.28 – $71.47
Expert$126,000 – $168,000$62.29 – $82.95
Top Expert$144,000 – $233,000$71.42 – $115.82

Air traffic controller salary by state 2021 (average)

StateSalary (per year)Salary (per hour)
Alabama$95,200$46.88
Alaska$95,700$47.06
Arizona$104,200$51.72
Arkansas$101,400$50.04
California$157,200$77.42
Colorado$142,300$70.82
Connecticut$90,700$44.47
Delaware$93,800$46.82
District of Columbia$105,600$52.19
Florida$137,400$67.92
Georgia$152,300$74.61
Hawaii$108,700$53.38
Idaho$104,600$51.57
Illinois$106,800$52.83
Indiana$133,700$66.19
Iowa$127,200$63.18
Kansas$141,200$70.26
Kentucky$115,700$56.89
Louisiana$97,900$48.25
Maine$104,300$51.74
Maryland$127,800$63.38
Massachusetts$115,200$56.92
Michigan$111,900$55.12
Minnesota$151,200$74.23
Mississippi$95,300$47.14
Missouri$122,500$61.34
Montana$91,200$45.04
Nebraska$98,700$48.72
Nevada$132,100$65.74
New Hampshire$154,600$76.82
New Jersey$126,300$62.92
New Mexico$132,200$65.28
New York$148,900$73.29
North Carolina$115,200$57.39
North Dakota$99,700$49.13
Ohio$146,200$72.62
Oklahoma$118,500$58.72
Oregon$102,400$50.92
Pennsylvania$127,300$63.27
Rhode Island$114,700$56.38
South Carolina$101,200$50.07
South Dakota$95,100$47.02
Tennessee$141,700$69.82
Texas$148,200$73.82
Utah$137,100$68.18
Vermont$89,200$44.21
Virginia$148,800$73.91
Washington$137,200$68.19
West Virginia$96,700$47.82
Wisconsin$107,300$53.62
Wyoming$103,200$51.29

Job Security of Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers have pretty high job security. In fact, once you work in this field, you will play an important role for the security of an airport and air travel in general and since this job can be really demanding, not many people will be able to do this job in the long run.

Consequently, your chances of being replaced and getting unemployed will be rather low and a career as an air traffic controller can therefore be great for you in case you search for a secure job where you can still make quite a lot of money at the same time.

Future Job Prospects of Air Traffic Controllers

While job prospects for air traffic controllers are pretty good right now, this may change in the future due to artificial intelligence, machine learning and our overall technological progress.

In fact, many air traffic controllers may be replaced by robots in the future and even though this may take a few decades to happen, it is still something to watch out for.

Working Hours of Air Traffic Controllers

Since the job of an air traffic controller is mentally demanding, people who work in this job will usually not work more than 35 hours per week.

You will also have to take breaks from work frequently. In fact, regulations are quite strict when it comes to working as an air traffic controller and this for a good reason.

Authorities just want to make sure that you can do your best to keep air travel as safe as possible and too many hours of work may put the lives of many people at risk since you would be more likely to make mistakes.

Consequently, you will have to work not that many hours as an air traffic controller and can rather enjoy spending lots of leisure with your loved ones instead.

Job Satisfaction of Air Traffic Controllers

Most air traffic controllers are pretty happy with what they are doing. In fact, job satisfaction is pretty high among air traffic controllers.

However, still make sure that you are really interested in this field and that you don’t want to become an air traffic controller just for the money.

Otherwise, you would likely become bored with what you are doing pretty soon and may not get happy in the long run.

Promotion Opportunities of Air Traffic Controllers

Promotion opportunities are rather limited in the air controller business. Quite often, you will work in the same job for decades and while your salary may increase significantly, your duties will most likely stay the same as at the beginning of your career.

Career Levels of Air Traffic Controllers

  • Junior air traffic controller
  • Senior air traffic controller
  • Air traffic controller with personnel responsibilities
  • Air traffic controller responsible for an entire airport

Fields and Types of Air Traffic Controllers

  • Air traffic controllers at commercial airports
  • Air traffic controllers at private airports
  • Air traffic controllers for big planes
  • Air traffic controllers for private jets
  • Approach and depart controllers
  • En-route controllers
  • Tower controllers
  • Oceanic controllers
  • Radar controllers
  • Procedural controllers

Educational Requirements of Air Traffic Controllers

You often need at least a bachelor’s degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program.

Additionally, you will need to get lots of training before you are finally allowed to work as an air traffic controller.

How to become an Air Traffic Controller

  1. Make sure that you really want to become an air traffic controller
  2. Talk to people who already work in this field
  3. Make sure that you meet the Federal Aviation Administration requirements
  4. Apply for a degree at an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program
  5. Pass the tests that are necessary for an FAA training program
  6. After passing the tests, you need to get practical experience
  7. Get your certification so that you are officially allowed to work as an air traffic controller

Character Traits you need for working as an Air Traffic Controller

  • Dealing with stress in a calm manner
  • You should have your emotions under control
  • Clear communication
  • Focus on your work is crucial to assure the safety of air travel
  • You should be willing to take on high levels of responsibility
  • Reliability is crucial
  • You should be able to deal with emotional pressure
  • Willingness to work in a field where mistakes could cost lives
  • Teamwork is crucial to succeed

Hard Skills for being an Air Traffic Controller

  • Good visual abilities
  • Strong analytical skills
  • Good spatial thinking
  • Problem-solving skills are crucial
  • Excellent communication is crucial for pilots to trust in you
  • Good coordination skills
  • Planning ahead in your brain is crucial to avoid collisions
  • Willingness and knowledge to work with modern technologies

Soft Skills for being an Air Traffic Controller

  • Empathy with pilots and ground staff
  • Patience with many different parties
  • Ability to compromise in case plans don’t work out as planned
  • Conflict solving is important
  • You need to focus for an extended period of time
  • Self-discipline
  • You should not consume any substances during work

Exit options for Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers barely have any exit options. Even though they will be really good at what they are doing, air traffic controllers will just not learn many hard skills that are important in the job market.

Consequently, once you become an air traffic controller, you may get stuck in this field for quite a long time and you should therefore make sure that working as an air traffic controller is really what you want to do for quite a long time.

Air Traffic Controller – Similar Careers

  • Pilot
  • Train conductor
  • Train driver
  • Airport ground staff
  • Yardmaster
  • Dispatcher
  • Locomotive engineer
  • Traffic technician

Air Traffic Controller Career FAQs

Is working as an air traffic controller physically demanding?

Working as an air traffic controller is not physically demanding at all. Most of the time, you will just sit in a cozy chair and watch the movements of planes on your radar.

Hence, becoming an air traffic controller can make quite a lot of sense for you if you want to avoid heavy physical work at all costs.

Is working as an air traffic controller mentally demanding?

Working as an air traffic controller is mentally and emotionally demanding since you will always have to focus to avoid any mistakes that could potentially lead to catastrophic outcomes and may take away the lives of many people.

Is it dangerous to work as an air traffic controller?

Being an air traffic controller is not dangerous at all. In fact, most air traffic controllers don’t ever experience dangerous situations during their workday and it is therefore much safer to work as an air traffic controller compared to working as a police officer, firefighter or many other occupations out there.

How long do air traffic controllers stay in their jobs?

Air traffic controllers stay in their jobs for quite a long time on average. In fact, once you become an air traffic controller, you will have a hard time finding a different job and this will force you to stay in this business for quite a while.

Many air traffic controllers are also pretty happy with their overall working conditions and therefore stay in their jobs for many years or even decades.

Is it easy for air traffic controllers to find a new job?

It is pretty hard for air traffic controllers to find a new job since air traffic controllers are pretty specialized in what they are doing and will simply not learn that many hard skills that are valuable in different fields of work.

Is it hard to switch from being an air traffic controller to another field of work?

Yes, it is pretty hard for you to switch to a different field once you become an air traffic controller.

Big corporations in the corporate world will likely not be willing to employ you since you will just lack many skills that are important in the corporate job market right now.

Do air traffic controllers have a high social status?

While air traffic controllers don’t have the same high social status as doctors, they still have a decent reputation in society and people will really appreciate the work you are doing since they know that your work will be crucial for them to get with an airplane from A to B in a safe manner.

Can you help out your family and friends as an air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers can not do much good for their family and friends since they just learn a pretty specialized skill set.

For instance, while roofers can repair the roofs of their loved ones, you will not be able to help your family and friends out with these things and your value for your social group will be rather limited.

Can air traffic controllers work remotely?

Air traffic controllers are not able to work remotely. Instead, ATCs have to present at work in person every day.

Consequently, you will not have the same level of flexibility as people who work in office jobs in the corporate world and are able to work from home quite often.

Is it easy to find a partner as an air traffic controller?

Since air traffic controllers have a decent social standing, make good money and also have a decent work-life balance, they also have a pretty good time in the dating market since there are many potential partners searching for such guys and gals.

Do air traffic controllers have to work on weekends?

While you will not have to work on weekends most of the time, you will sometimes also have to do weekend shifts as an air traffic controller.

Planes also have to fly on weekends to bring passengers from A to B and this means that you will also have to work during those times sooner or later.

Do I have to work at nighttime as an air traffic controller?

Since planes will start and land in the evening and also at nighttime, you may also have to do night shifts from time to time.

Consequently, you should not become an air traffic controller if you are not willing to work during those unpleasant times.

Do you have to travel as an air traffic controller?

Most of the time, there is no need to travel as an air traffic controller. You will just sit in your tower at the airport you are employed and do your job.

The only time you might have to travel is when you have to get additional certifications.

However, this will not be the case on a regular basis and you will therefore be able to stay at home and to enjoy plenty of precious time with your family.

Are air traffic controller pensions good?

Most air traffic controllers have a pretty good time once they retire since they will have saved and invested lots of money and due to their good salary, they will also get a decent pension.

Consequently, you will not have to worry about old-age poverty as an air traffic controller that much as long as you don’t spend lots of money on unnecessary stuff and rather save enough of it.

Are air traffic controller salaries going up?

Since it is pretty hard to become an air traffic controller, there are not many people who are able to work in this industry.

Since the number of flights increases at a rapid rate, there is an increasing demand for air traffic controllers and with limited supply of work in this field, salaries of air traffic controllers are going up and will likely also do so in the near future.

Can you have a positive effect on society as an air traffic controller?

While you are important to assure the safety of air travel, you will still have a rather limited positive effect on society.

Compared to teachers and other educational staff members, you will just not reach that many people and will therefore not be able to influence them in a positive way.

How long does it take to become an air traffic controller?

Since you will need to get a degree and also need to get lots of additional education and practical experience before you are allowed to work as an air traffic controller, it will take you at least 5 years before you are able to work in this field.

It can also take you much longer, depending on your willingness to work hard and also on how you want to finance your degree.

Is it difficult to become an air traffic controller?

It is pretty difficult to become an air traffic controller. Not only will you have to get a demanding degree, but you will also have to do some mental and emotional tests and if you fail those tests, you will just not be able to work in this field.

In fact, most air traffic controllers fail during the process and only the best people will finally be able to work as an ATC.

Do you need to be smart to work as an air traffic controller?

While you don’t need an extremely high IQ for working as an air traffic controller, you will still need strong analytical skills.

Moreover, apart from your IQ, it is also pretty important to have a stable mindset and to react cool under pressure.

Do air traffic controllers have a good work-life balance?

Since air traffic controllers have to take many breaks during work and also don’t have to work long hours, they have more than enough time for their families and also for their hobbies or just to hang out with their favorite people after work.

In fact, there are not many jobs out there where you have such an excellent work-life balance as in the air traffic controller industry.

Do air traffic controllers have to work on holidays?

Since planes also land and depart during holidays, you may also have to work during those times.

However, this doesn’t mean that you will have to work on all of those holidays. It just means that you should be willing to work on some of them.

How many hours do air traffic controllers have to work?

Air traffic controllers don’t work more than 38 hours in most states. Sometimes, air traffic controllers also only work 35 hours or even less, depending on the rules and regulations of the individual state and airport.

Do air traffic controllers have to work many extra hours?

Air traffic controllers don’t have to work many extra hours. In fact, most air traffic controllers are not allowed to work any extra hours at all since authorities often fear that too many hours of work would lead to unsafe air travel.

How to maximize your chances of becoming an air traffic controller?

If you really want to maximize your chances of becoming an ATC, you should inform yourself early and also work on your mental skills.

In fact, it is crucial that you have a stable mental and emotional personality if you want to pass the tests for becoming an air traffic controller since this is the part where most applicants fail.

You can also do those tests online to get a better feeling on how to pass those tests.

Do air traffic controllers work indoors or outdoors?

Air traffic controllers mostly work indoors at the airport in a tower where they keep a close look at the radar to make sure that planes depart and arrive in time and that there will be no collisions that could lead to catastrophic outcomes.

Job alternatives to becoming an air traffic controller

If you don’t want to work as an air traffic controller anymore, you may also want to consider a career as a pilot, ground staff member, train driver or boat captain.

What does the workplace of an air traffic controller look like?

As an air traffic controller, you will mainly work in a tower where you have to watch radars and many other instruments that show you the position and the flight behavior of planes to make sure that everything works out as planned.

Do you have to look good for working as an air traffic controller?

Your looks don’t matter for becoming an air traffic controller. Sure, you should still look groomed but you still don’t have to look like a supermodel. Instead, what matters much more is your personality and your skill set.

Is an air traffic controller career beneficial for your private life?

Since you will make decent money from your job and also have a pretty good work-life balance, becoming an ATC can make quite a lot of sense if you want to focus on your family and your private life instead of aspiring to a fancy corporate career.

Do you need a college degree for becoming an air traffic controller?

Yes, you will need a degree and plenty of additional education for becoming an air traffic controller.

You will also need lots of practical experience before you are finally allowed to work in this field.

Do you need to be certified to work as an air traffic controller?

Apart from your degree, you will also need official permission and license to work as an air traffic controller.

Depending on the state you want to work in, it can be pretty hard to get this license and you should therefore prepare well for those exams that can be pretty difficult.

How much does it cost to become an air traffic controller?

Since you will have to spend lots of money on getting a degree and also additional licenses and practical experience, most air traffic controllers spend between $50,000 and $150,000 before they are finally able to work in this field.

Hence, make sure that you are willing to make this huge upfront investment before you decide for a career as an air traffic controller.

Is being an air traffic controller a good career?

A high fraction of air traffic controllers is pretty happy with their jobs. However, you should not only become an ATC just for the money and the good work-life balance.

Instead, you should have a real passion for what you are doing to stay interested and happy in the long run.

Can you provide for your family by working as an air traffic controller?

Since you will make decent money as an air traffic controller, you will have an easy time to provide for your family.

If your spouse also makes money, you will be able to enjoy a really decent lifestyle and also some luxury.

Will air traffic controllers suffer from old-age poverty?

Since you can save lots of money during your active career as an air traffic controller thanks to your good salary, you will not have to worry about old-age poverty that much as long as you invest your money wisely and don’t spend too much on dumb things.

Can you get rich as an air traffic controller?

While air traffic controllers can make decent money, you will not get rich from this job.

Consequently, if money is really important to you and your only goal in life is to get rich, you should rather aspire to a professional sports career, a medical career or work as a lawyer or investment banker instead.

Do you get continuous training as an air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers get training on a regular basis so that they can use our modern technologies as best as possible to reduce the risk of collisions and other issues that might happen in air traffic.

Are air traffic controllers organized in unions?

Air traffic controllers are indeed organized in a union called National Air Traffic Controllers Association that aims to assure good working conditions and decent wages for people who work in this field.

Do you get paid when you are sick as an air traffic controller?

Most air traffic controllers also get sick pay. However, this also depends on the state you are working in and also on the individual airport.

If you are not sure, you should check out your local rules and regulations regarding sick pay.

Do air traffic controllers have a high level of responsibility?

Air traffic controllers have an extremely high level of responsibility since mistakes on their side may take away the lives of many people.

Consequently, you will always have to stay focused and should never be distracted while you are working as an ATC to avoid any issues in this regard.

Can you work abroad as an air traffic controller?

It is pretty hard for air traffic controllers to work abroad since rules and regulations change across states and countries and you might just not be able to work as an ATC in state A when you got your license in state B.

Is it stressful to work as an air traffic controller?

While you will have to work in a physical manner, air traffic controllers still experience lots of stress on a mental and emotional level.

Hence, make sure that you have a stable mindset and that you are also willing to deal with all the pressure that comes along with working in this field.

Is it boring to work as an air traffic controller?

Working as an air traffic controller is not boring at all. In fact, you will always have to stay focused since mistakes on your side could lead to serious adverse outcomes and this will keep you going and you will likely stay motivated much longer compared to the average corporate worker out there.

Is being an air traffic controller hard?

While you will not have to work in a heavy physical manner, working as an air traffic controller can still be hard from an emotional perspective since you will know that your mistakes could potentially cost many lives and this is not an easy burden to take on.

Is there a dress code for air traffic controllers?

There is no official dress code for air traffic controllers in most states. Instead, you will often be able to wear what you feel most comfortable with instead of heaving to wear a suit or a standardized dress as in many corporate jobs out there.

What kind of air traffic controllers are paid the most?

The longer you stay in your job, the higher your salary will typically be as an air traffic controller.

Your salary will also depend on your level of responsibility and if you have personnel responsibility, you will likely make much more compared to a normal ATC.

What percentage of air traffic controllers are women?

While there is an increasing number of women working in the air traffic controller industry, the majority of people who work in this field are still men (almost 75%) and this will likely not change that much in the near future.

However, this doesn’t mean that you could not succeed as a woman. It just means that more men aspire to this career.

Do I need a mentor to succeed in the air traffic controller industry?

There is no need to get a mentor to succeed as an air traffic controller. However, it can still help to have some experienced colleagues on your side who can support you in case you make mistakes or need some advice regarding how to deal with certain issues.

Do air traffic controllers have a high life expectancy?

Air traffic controllers have a pretty high life expectancy. Since they can make decent money and also don’t have to work long hours, air traffic controllers are able to work and live in a pretty healthy manner and this will also translate into pretty good life expectancy on average.

Do air traffic controllers suffer from sleeping problems?

Air traffic controllers often experience sleeping problems since they sometimes have to work at nighttime and their schedule changes on a regular basis. Consequently, their sleeping rhythm may suffer quite a lot.

What states are best for working as an air traffic controller?

California is a great place to work as an air traffic controller since you can make decent money while you will still be able to enjoy the nice beaches, mountains and also the relaxed lifestyle you will not experience in many other states.

What are the pros and cons of working as an air traffic controller?

If you want to learn even more about being an air traffic controller, you should also check out the pros and cons of an air traffic controller career.

Sources

https://www.statista.com/statistics/276223/number-of-air-traffic-controllers-in-europe-and-the-us/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/274051/gross-wage-per-annum-of-air-traffic-controllers-by-country/

Interviews and own research.

About the author

My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people about the different career paths that are possible in our current state of the world. In my opinion, people often make the mistake to choose their profession solely based on how much money they can earn from it instead of doing what makes them really happy.

This is quite sad and I just want to give people a more objective picture of how a fulfilling career could look like. I did the same when I started working in consulting after finishing my Master’s degree in Economics. However, I’ve quit pretty soon after that since I haven’t found true meaning in my job.

Now I can do what I really love to do and I want to enable as many other people as well to go this exciting path towards happiness instead of money.

I conducted various interviews with employees to give you a good impression of what working in different fields will look like and that you can make the best possible decision regarding your future career choice.

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