How does one become an air traffic controller?

I’ve already got a hat. It says “Air Traffic Controller” on it in big letters, and lights up when you pull a switch… :wink:

No, actually I’m not considering a career change in that particular direction. Flying dopers should be thankful for this.
But I assume there’s some sort of certification or academy air traffic controllers must attend before working as one. How does the process work? I guess the military also trains people to be air traffic controllers.

What are the backgrounds of people who go into air traffic control, generally speaking?
Inspired by a recent news story on the state of air traffic control.

There are colleges that offer a degree in air traffic control. I can try to google a list of ones in a minute. Traditional school treat it as a 4 year degree and I am not quite sure about the best way to do a career change into it. There are physical and mental health qualifications as well and you need a certain type of personality to excel at it. The training ladder starts at graveyard shifts at small, tower controlled fields and moves up to center and tower controllers in places like the New York, Chicago, and Atlanta airspace. It can be very, very stressful and regulation based but I have always found it extremely interesting. U.S. and Candadian controllers were heros in my book on 9/11 by dynamically rerouting all trafic by inution and not just regulations. At the peak, they were rerouting a plane or second and an investigation commitee after the fact wanted to document and improve the process in case something like it ever happened again and they found out that it could not be either documented or imporved. The pay is good quickly reaching the high 5 figures and then into the low 6 figures.

Here is the link that tells you most everything. There is a maximum age to start which is 30 years old.

I have a buddy that’s a controller. He’s a regional controller, not the guy that directs planes down to the runway. He was doing it in the Air Force when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and was recruited from there. Even after all these years he works rotating shifts and has to bid on days off and vacation at the first of the fiscal year, but he makes a good living (low 6 figure). Obviously a fairly unique carrer path that probably couldn’t be replicated today.

Fascinating! Thanks!

It’s interesting that only 14 colleges across the country offer this course of study (and, from the looks of the list, a number of them seem like pretty small colleges), but I guess that with only about 15,000 controllers nationwide, demand isn’t really that high.
Apparently not as many are trained in the military as I had thought:

Interesting article. Anyone reading it should note it’s from August 17, 1987. I didn’t pick up on that right away. :smack:

I have a nephew who just became an air traffic controller at one of Canada’s largest airports - his first posting and he is landing planes.

Education wise he was studying for what seemed like forever but was probably about 9 yrs. He’s 28 now I believe.

It’s an interesting story actually. When he was in junior high some kind sole donated, to the school, a ‘build from a kit’ airplane. The school decided to set up a program where the students who qualified, and were willing to foot the cost, would be schooled in the math and physics of flight, while building the plane and taking the course for their first pilots license. Great idea, huh?

When they were about to start the course, a couple of kids had dropped out and they found they had an open space so they offered a scholarship to the kid in school with the highest math/physics grade and my nephew was that kid! He ended up getting his pilots license before his drivers permit! That was his first step into the world of aviation formally, though his Dad worked refueling jets at the local airport.

He graduated high school and went on to take a degree in computer science. After that he decided he wanted to train as a commercial airline pilot, for which he was, by then, well positioned. Off he went to another course of study.

Just as he was getting about ready to graduate from that course the government approached him and said they’d like him to consider going on to be an air traffic controller as he was just the material they were looking for, and so, he was off again taking yet more studies.

And now, though a qualified pilot, and a qualified commercial pilot he has become an air traffic controller. He has an enormous student debt, as you can well imagine, but he’s making very good money so it shouldn’t be an issue for long.

Hope this info helps to answer your questions.

True story: A couple of years after I graduated high school I ran into a former classmate in the library. She started telling me about taking peyote in the desert, having visons, etc.; it was all very Castaneda. I asked why she was out in the desert: “Oh, I’m in Air Traffic Controller School”. I was nervous flying for a while.

Ach! You’re right! :eek: Sorry - it was on the first page of a google search.

FWIW - Back in 1990 it did not require a 4 year degree. I took a test and then, after passing, was interviewed by a local air traffic control manager. He recommended me to be invited to the Academy. I was invited but decided not to do it because I had a small child.

I found out that there isn’t just one personality type that can succeed as an air traffic controller. I fly at some secondary Boston airports (like Hanscom if you know the area) that can get much busier than nearby Logan on a nice summer day. The private pilots take to the skies en masse. Most of the controllers bark strong orders that can have a tremendous amount of content in a 7 second sentence. You have to be on your game to figure out and note all that they just said to you and by then they have moved on to someone else. I find it fascinating how they can have planes stacked 8 miles out and about a mile apart, keep track of all of them, and keep them safe by ordering sudden go arounds for initial plans that don’t work out. They usually have planes taking off on the same runway as well. It is quite the stressful game.

OTOH, I like to fly United because they have ATC piped in over the headphone system. I was departing Chicago when we transferred over from O’Hare tower to Chicago center. The center controller sounded like a black guy and just barely effeminate. Chicago is one of the busiest airspaces in the world and must be one at the top of his game to work there yet he sounded like he was smooth talking the ladies in a satin robe on a Friday night. There was no trace of tension in his voice either as he gave the commands. I was very impressed and wonder how he ended up so zen.

I have a friend who is an ATC - actually, he was training new ATCs for a while but has been requalifying to get back into the tower.

He says that can offer lots of money, but the selection criteria weed out most people - not many people have what it takes to do the job.


My buddy works Memphis center and does a spot-on Hank Hill on occasion, on the air. He’s a pretty laid back guy IRL.

Being that I repaired Air Traffic Control equipment in the Army, I was in the same companies as Air Traffic Controllers. They’re enlisted, not officers, and as recently as 1996 had excellent prospects in the civilian world needing only to pass the simple FAA exams.

In fixed installations, there was a mix of military ATC’s and civilians. In tactical operations, these were 100% military, of course.

In Germany, I’m not sure who the civilian authority was for certification, even though it was a U.S. base. I seem to recall that we did some flight following work for commercial traffic heading into Frankfurt am Main (the definitely used my NDB), although most of the ATC’s only worked on ground traffic and ground directed landings.