Unique Aviation Career as an Air Traffic Controller

An air traffic controller career offers new challenges and new situations every day.

Imagine a career that offers new challenges and new situations every day. If you’re through with the boredom of your current job, you might consider becoming an air traffic controller. Job opportunities are growing and early retirement allows for additional career options.

Job Description: Air Traffic Controllers guide “more than 87,000 flights every day across our national airspace,” and are “disciplined, tough-minded, meticulous and driven,” according to the FAA. As one of more than 15,000 FAA controllers, you will work in an airport control tower, a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), communicating with pilots and keeping the nation’s air traffic flowing smoothly and safely. Working within the ever-changing conditions of the National Air Space, “the job changes every single day,” said Pete Nair, an Air Traffic Controller at the Los Angeles ARTCC.

Salary: Starting salary is dependent on several factors including facility location, complexity of the position, job performance and certifications, but is typically between $45,000 and $65,000. Within a few years most controllers “are going to be making in the six figures,” said Dr. Brent Bowen, Dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU’s) Prescott, Ariz. campus, which has an FAA-approved Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) ATC program. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the median salary at $122,530 per year in 2012. Forbes magazine in 2014 put air traffic controller on its list of the 10 highest paying jobs.

This photo was taken inside the Indianapolis Center (ZID). In the background are ZID employees, who were joined by some controllers from the Chicago Center (ZAU) during the ZAU outage. (Photo provided by NATCA)|

Job Requirements: You must be a U.S. citizen, pass medical and background checks and qualifying examinations, speak English understandably, have applicable educational or work experience, and enter the FAA Academy, where all accepted applicants train, by age 31. Applicants should also “more than anything, be able to stay calm in stressful environments,” said Nair. “The pilots rely on us to be calm when they’re in moments of panic.”

Where training is available: Thirty-six educational institutions in the United States offer FAA-approved CTI programs, including many well known universities offering Bachelor of Science degrees in Air Traffic Management. The University of North Dakota, Purdue University, Arizona State University and ERAU are among those schools. Graduates of CTI programs have traditionally received hiring priority, but the FAA recently ended that policy, a decision Congress is reportedly seeking to reverse. The U.S. military also trains and utilizes controllers for their air operations, and the FAA gives former military controllers hiring priority.

Controller Bryce Oswalt at Kalamazoo, Mich., Tower. (Photo provided by NATCA)|

Career prospects: “There is a need for more controllers over the next several years,” said Doug Church of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and the FAA expects to hire more than 10,000 controllers over the next decade. As federal employees, FAA controllers enjoy job security. Additionally, because English is the universal aviation language and U.S. airspace is the most complex in the world, experienced controllers can find employment opportunities with overseas air traffic control agencies. “I think there’s going to be a large future in that area,” said Dr. Bowen.

Benefits: Once established in their careers, controllers have a high degree of flexibility in arranging their work schedules. Also, with a mandatory retirement age of 56, “You can retire pretty dang early and have another career, while collecting retirement,” said Jennah Perry, a former controller and professor of air traffic management at ERAU. Added Nair, “The sense of pride is absolutely number one.”

Browse current aviation job listings to find new career opportunities here.


Get exclusive online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.


New to Flying?


Already have an account?