Setting a Course for a Future in Air Traffic Control

Among the most crucial roles in flight safety is air traffic control. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Bachelor of Science in Air Traffic Management trains students to become expert guides to pilots and ensure every flight around the globe is safe and secure. But how does someone become an air traffic controller, and what is their job like?

Students utilize industry-grade equipment in their training to become degreed air traffic controllers at Embry-Riddle's Air Traffic Control Lab in Prescott, Arizona. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / Connor McShane)
Students utilize industry-grade equipment in their training to become degreed air traffic controllers at Embry-Riddle's Air Traffic Control Lab in Prescott, Arizona. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / Connor McShane)

Air traffic controllers are the professionals responsible for the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic within the national airspace of the United States and surrounding territories. Professor Jennah Perry, Dept. Chair of Applied Aviation Sciences, is an Associate Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle's Prescott Campus. She has vast experience in both air traffic management and training students to become professionals in the field. 

Dr. Perry addressed some common questions about air traffic management for anyone interested in entering this field, vital to the aviation industry.

How does someone become an air traffic controller?

The simplest way to become an air traffic controller is to apply with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) during one of their annual ATC vacancy announcements or attend and graduate from an FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) school (such as Embry-Riddle) and then apply via a non-general public tract during one of the vacancy announcements.

All applicants who are selected are required to attend training at the FAA Academy, which lasts anywhere between 3-5 months. Applications to become a controller are only available during an ATC open bid or application window.

What makes someone an effective air traffic controller?

Successful air traffic controllers are extremely organized, work well in teamwork settings, have excellent communications skills, speak clearly with appropriate volume and speech rate, are capable of memorizing and applying complex material quickly, able to speak and write simultaneously and understand aircraft characteristics and performance.

What kind of training goes in to becoming an air traffic controller?

Training to become an air traffic controller with the FAA is done entirely at the FAA Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Academy students are assigned a specialty of either Enroute, Terminal (Tower) or in some limited circumstances, Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON).

Training at the academy is strictly related to the assigned specialty and can last anywhere between 3-5 months. Upon successful completion of Academy training, graduates are sent to their first facility, where additional facility-specific training begins. After completing all required training at the assigned facility, students earn the certification of Certified Professional Controller (CPC).

What’s the typical salary for an air traffic controller?

Controllers make on average anywhere between $130K - $140K, according to the FAA.

What are the requirements to become an air traffic controller?

Requirements to become a controller must include the following:

  • Be a U.S. citizen.
  • Registered for Selective Service, if applicable (Required for males born after 12/31/1959).
  • Age 30 or under on the closing date of the application period. (The mandatory retirement age is 56.)
  • Have either three years of general work experience or four years of education leading to a bachelor’s degree, or a combination of both.
  • Speak English clearly enough to be understood over communications equipment.

Is air traffic control a stressful job?

Considering the responsibilities associated with the career field of air traffic control, many view it as a very stressful profession. Controllers have very little, to no room for failure or error, which is often the contributor to stress levels while working.

There is stress management training while [students] are in the FAA Academy. Europe requires annual stress management education for their controllers, but the US currently does not.

What’s the benefit of having a degree in air traffic management over trying to enter the field without one?

A degree in air traffic control is not required. However the education of air traffic control procedures and techniques is recommended. Air traffic control applicants with the FAA are only given one opportunity to attend the FAA Academy. Should a student fail out of the Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City, they are not allowed to enroll again. Hence the importance of an education in ATC prior to attending the Academy. 

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott is part of the FAA Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), where we teach material provided by the FAA to our students to assist them in passing the FAA Air Traffic Academy.

What kind of facilities does Embry-Riddle have that help prepare students in air traffic management?

Air traffic controllers regularly use equipment such as specialized keyboards, radar scopes, flight progress strips, light guns, binoculars, and the software ERAM and STARS.

Embry-Riddle Prescott uses all this equipment and more in our Air Traffic Control laboratory.

Embry-Riddle's B.S. in Air Traffic Management at either of our residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Florida, or Prescott, Arizona provide you with the training and experience you need to enter the FAA Academy, where you’ll be integrated with others for additional air traffic control training. Because of the high quality of their education and experience, Embry-Riddle graduates consistently lead their classes at the FAA Academy on their way to securing their future careers in the field.