What do Air Traffic Controllers Do

Air Traffic Controllers

The National Airspace System (NAS) is a vast network of people and equipment that ensures the safe operation of commercial and private aircraft. Air traffic controllers work within the NAS to coordinate the movement of air traffic to make certain that planes stay a safe distance apart. Their immediate concern is safety, but controllers also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. Some regulate airport traffic through designated airspaces; others regulate airport arrivals and departures.

Terminal controllers watch over all planes traveling in an airport's airspace. Their main responsibility is to organize the flow of aircraft into and out of the airport. They work in either the control tower or the terminal radar approach control (TRACON) room or building. Relying on visual observation, the tower local controllers sequence arrival aircraft for landing and issue departure clearances for those departing from the airport. Other controllers in the tower control the movement of aircraft on the taxiways, handle flight data, and provide flight plan clearances. Terminal radar controllers manage aircraft departing from or arriving to an airport by monitoring each aircraft’s movement on radar to ensure that a safe distance is maintained between all aircraft under their control. In addition, terminal controllers keep pilots informed about weather and runway conditions.

Many different controllers are involved in the departure of an airplane. If the plane is flying under instrument flight rule conditions, a flight plan is filed prior to departure. The tower flight data controller receives the flight plan in the form of a flight strip, which is output from a computer, and arranges it in sequence. When an aircraft calls for clearance the clearance delivery controller issues the clearance and moves the strip over to the ground controller who manages the movement of aircraft on the airport surface, except the active runway. When the aircraft arrives at the active runway the strip is moved to the local controller who issues the departure clearance, observes the takeoff and turns the plane over to the departure controller. The TRACON departure controller identifies the plane on radar, climbs it, and directs it on course.

After each plane departs, terminal controllers notify en route controllers, who take charge next. There are 20 air route traffic control centers located around the country, each employing 300 to 700 controllers, with more than 150 on duty during peak hours at the busiest facilities. Airplanes usually fly along designated routes; each center is assigned a certain airspace containing many different routes. En route controllers work either individually or in teams of two, depending on how heavy traffic is; each team is responsible for a sector of the center’s airspace.

As the plane proceeds on its flight plan to its destination it is handed off from sector to sector both within the center and to adjoining centers. To prepare for planes about to enter the team’s sector, the radar associate controller organizes flight plans output from a printer into strip bays. If two planes are scheduled to enter the team’s sector in conflict, the controller may arrange with the preceding sector unit for one plane to change its flight path or altitude. As a plane approaches a team’s airspace, the radar controller accepts responsibility for the plane from the previous sector. The controller also delegates responsibility for the plane to the next sector when the plane leaves the team’s airspace.

When the plane is approximately 50 miles from the destination airport, it is handed off to that airport’s terminal radar arrival controller who sequences it with other arrivals, and issues an approach clearance. As the plane nears the runway, the pilot is issued a clearance to contact the tower. The local controller issues the landing clearance. Once the plane has landed, the ground controller directs it along the taxiways to its assigned gate. The local and ground controllers usually work entirely by sight, but may use airport surface radar if visibility is very poor.

Both airport tower and en route controllers usually control several planes at a time, often making quick decisions about completely different activities. For example, a controller might direct a plane on its landing approach and at the same time provide pilots entering the airport's airspace with information about conditions at the airport. While instructing these pilots, the controller also might observe other planes in the vicinity, such as those in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land, to ensure that they remain well separated.

In addition to airport towers and en route centers, air traffic controllers also work in flight service stations at 17 locations in Alaska. These flight service specialists provide pilots with preflight and in-flight weather information, suggested routes, and other aeronautical information important to the safety of a flight. Flight service specialists relay air traffic control clearances to pilots not in direct communications with a tower or center, assist pilots in emergency situations, and initiate and coordinate searches for missing or overdue aircraft. At certain locations where there is no airport tower or the tower has closed for the day, flight service specialists provide airport advisory services to landing and departing aircraft. However, they are not involved in actively managing and separating air traffic.

Some air traffic controllers work at the FAA's Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Herndon, VA, where they oversee the entire system. They look for situations that will create bottlenecks or other problems in the system and then respond with a management plan for traffic into and out of the troubled sector. The objective is to keep traffic levels in the trouble spots manageable for the controllers working at en route centers.

Work Environment

Air traffic controllers held about 24,500 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of air traffic controllers were as follows:

  • Federal government - 91%
  • Support activities for air transportation - 5%

Most controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en route centers. Many tower and approach/departure controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings located across the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Approach and departure controllers often work in semidark rooms. The aircraft they control appear as points of light moving across their radar screens, and a well-lit room would make it difficult to see the screens properly.

Air traffic controllers must react quickly and efficiently while maintaining maximum concentration. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers can be tiring. As a result, controllers retire earlier than most workers. Those with 20 years of experience are eligible to retire at age 50, while those with 25 years of service may retire earlier than that. Controllers are required to retire at age 56.

Work Schedules

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. The FAA regulates the hours that an air traffic controller may work. Controllers may not work more than 10 straight hours during a shift and must have 9 hours’ rest before their next shift.

Controllers may rotate shifts among day, evening, and night, because major control facilities operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that do not operate on a 24-hour basis. Controllers at these airports may have standard work schedules.

Education & Training Required

There are three main pathways to become an air traffic controller with the FAA. The first is air traffic controllers with prior experience through either the FAA or the Department of Defense as a civilian or veteran. Second are applicants from the general public. These applicants must have 3 years of progressively responsible 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. The third way is for an applicant to have successfully completed an aviation-related program of study through the FAA’s Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. In 2008, there were 31 schools in the AT-CTI program.

AT-CTI program schools offer 2–year or 4-year non-engineering degrees that teach basic courses in aviation and air traffic control. In addition to graduation, AT-CTI candidates need a recommendation from their school before being considered for employment as an air traffic controller by the FAA.

Candidates with prior experience as air traffic controllers are automatically qualified for FAA air traffic controller positions. However, applicants from the general public and the AT-CTI program must pass the FAA-authorized pre-employment test that measures their ability to learn the duties of a controller. 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 testing positions, applicants are selected randomly. However, the FAA guarantees that all AT-CTI students in good standing in their programs will be given the FAA pre-employment test. Those who achieve a qualifying score on the test become eligible for employment as an air traffic controller. Candidates must be granted security and medical clearance and are subject to drug screening. Additionally, applicants must meet other basic qualification requirements in accordance with Federal law. These requirements include United States citizenship and the ability to speak English.

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. Graduates of the AT-CTI program are eligible to bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first 5 weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy.

After graduation from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, candidates are assigned to an air traffic control facility and 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 portions of the training usually are dismissed. Controllers must 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 screenings as a condition of continuing employment.

Other Skills Required

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 other distractions.

How to Advance

At airports, new controllers begin by supplying pilots with basic flight data and airport information. They then advance to the position of ground controller, 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 to 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 en route center to a tower.

Job Outlook

Employment of air traffic controllers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations.

Despite limited employment growth, about 2,500 openings for air traffic controllers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


Although air traffic is projected to increase in the next decade, the satellite-based Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is expected to allow individual controllers to handle more air traffic. As a result, the demand for additional air traffic controllers should be somewhat limited over the projections decade.


The median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $129,750 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $71,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $185,990.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for air traffic controllers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Federal government - $137,380
  • Support activities for air transportation - $79,580

The salaries for development controllers increase as they complete successive levels of training. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the salaries for more advanced controllers who have completed on-the-job training varies with the location of the facility, the complexity of the flight paths, and other factors.

Most air traffic controllers work full time, and some work additional hours. The FAA regulates the hours that an air traffic controller may work. Controllers may not work more than 10 straight hours during a shift and must have 9 hours’ rest before their next shift.

Controllers may rotate shifts among day, evening, and night, because major control facilities operate continuously. Controllers also work weekend and holiday shifts. Less busy airports may have towers that do not operate on a 24-hour basis. Controllers at these airports may have more normal work schedules.

Academic Programs of Interest

Aviation encompasses all the activities relating to airborne devices created by human ingenuity, generally known as aircraft. These activities include the organizations and regulatory bodies as well as the personnel related with the operation of aircraft and the industries involved in airplane manufacture, development, and design. more