Air Traffic Controllers Careers: Employment & Salary Trends for Aspiring Air Traffic Controllers

Air Traffic Controllers at a Glance

Air traffic controllers help aircraft move safely through in the air and on the ground by using radar and other electronic equipment to direct ground  movement, takeoffs, and direct landings. They keep pilots abreast of changes in weather and they keep aircraft a safe distance apart during flights. Airport tower controllers direct the flow of aircraft in and out of the airport only and flight service specialists help maintain safety by informing pilots of weather conditions, terrain issues, and the best routes in their immediate area. Air traffic controllers’ main responsibility is safety, but they also help with emergencies that may involve searching for missing aircraft and they also help to minimize delays.

Did you know that with all of the advanced technology available, the primary method of controlling the immediate airport environment is visual observation from the control tower? The tower is a tall, windowed structure located on the airport grounds. Tower controllers are responsible for the separation and efficient movement of aircraft and vehicles operating on the taxiways and runways of the airport itself, and aircraft in the air near the airport, generally 2 to 5 nautical miles (4 to 9 km) depending on the airport procedures. -Aviation Explorer

Most air traffic controllers work in federal, state, and local government. They are employed at air route traffic control centers and airport control towers, as well as flight service stations throughout the U.S. Many also work outside the contiguous U.S. in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.

Employment Trends

Job Outlook: Average increase
Annual Openings: 1,213
Percent Growth: 10.2%
Total Jobs Held: 24,000
Projected Employment: 28,000 by 2016
The Best 500 Jobs Overall Ranking: 322

Source: “Best Jobs for the 21st Century,” JIST Publishing 2009. Farr, Michael and Shatkin, Laurence, Ph.D.; “Salary Facts Handbook,” JIST Publishing 2008. Editors @ JIST.

Over the next decade, many air traffic controllers will become eligible to retire, which will create a number of positions for aspiring air traffic controllers. In addition, as advancements in technology continue, the demand for air traffic controllers that have been trained with and have experience with new computerized systems will increase. While job growth in this industry is expected continue at an average pace, Federal budget issues may have a slight negative effect on hiring.  

Currently the FAA employs:

  • More than 20,000 controllers at air route traffic control centers, airport control towers, and flight service stations located throughout the nation. Some jobs are located outside the contiguous United States in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa
  • Roughly 6,800 controllers at 22 air route traffic control centers located throughout the US plus one each in Guam, and Puerto Rico
  • Around 4,300 flight service specialists at approximately 317 flight service locations throughout the United States, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. –National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA)

Salary Trends

Air traffic controllers are ranked number 16 on the list of America’s Top 250 Best Paying Jobs. They average even more when working in federal, state, and local government. In 2009, air traffic controllers earned an average salary of $112,930 per year. This figure represents a 3.7% decrease over 2008 ($117,240). Air traffic controllers in the 90th percentile can expect to earn $145,600 per year, while 75th percentile architects earned $142,210 per year. Entry-level air traffic controllers can expect to earn a starting salary of around $59,410 per year.

Degrees and Training Programs

Landing a spot on the list of Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) air traffic controller trainees is not easy. These positions are among the highest paying positions in the country. They also offer some of the best benefits, so competition is stiff and requirements are tough. Aspiring air traffic controllers must have at least four years of college and three years of full-time work experience. Currently nearly 50% of all air traffic controllers have a bachelor’s degree and roughly 15% have a master’s degree.

Aspiring air traffic controllers must complete a FAA approved education and training program, and pass a pre-employment test. Military veterans and air traffic controllers with prior experience do not have to pass a pre-employment test. In addition, aspiring air traffic controllers will have to complete a 12 week training program to learn about everything from airway systems and aircraft performance characteristics to FAA regulations.

To become an air traffic controller, education and ability are not the only requirements. According to the NATCA, studies show that the unique skills necessary for success as a controller diminish with age. Because of this, a maximum age of 30 has been established for entry into an FAA tower or center controller position. In addition aspiring air traffic controllers must pass a medical exam, take a drug test, and obtain security clearance.

Coursework Required
Aspiring air traffic controllers will take courses such as fundamentals of air traffic control. Air carrier systems jet, accident investigation, aviation weather, fundamentals of flight, flight guidance systems, information technology management, aviation law, flight deck automation, and air carrier operations. Students will also take required courses in math, philosophy, psychology, cultural diversity, public speaking, physics, and writing.