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What It Takes to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Plane in blue skyThe position of air traffic controller has generated a lot of interest after being named the top-paying job with the lowest minimum education in a recent Investopedia survey. According to the survey, air traffic controllers receive median annual salaries between $86,000-$142,000 with good benefits.

But it’s far from easy money, and it’s not an occupation that everyone can handle. Air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs out there and can often involve making life or death decisions under extreme pressure.

Air traffic controllers can make life or death decisions for travelers … so what kind of criteria goes into hiring these folks?

Even though the path to becoming an air traffic controller isn’t as long or difficult as trying to become a doctor or lawyer, it is by no means easy.

Learn more: FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Passenger Rights, Air Traffic Control Upgrades

Air Traffic control poster, circa WWIIIt typically begins with a Federal Aviation Administration approved collegiate training program. Some well-known universities like Arizona State, Oklahoma and Purdue offer approved programs, but many are actually offered through smaller community colleges. It isn’t always necessary to have a bachelor’s degree from one of these universities—the FAA will allow you to substitute three years of “progressively responsible” work experience.

The vetting process for the next step is much more rigorous. To qualify for the FAA training program, new candidates must be under the age of 31 (performance diminishes with age), pass medical (can’t be colorblind or have a history of high blood pressure), psychological, security, and written aptitude tests. Applicants must also complete a personal interview where they are evaluated on alertness, decisiveness, diction, poise and conciseness of speech.

Get the latest on air travel safety in our Travel Safety & Security section.

This interviewing and testing process is allegedly extremely competitive. This process is expedited for candidates with military air traffic experience. Those who qualify move on to a 12-week training program at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where they study FAA regulations, aircraft performance characteristics, controller equipment, and airway system fundamentals.

Air Traffic control mapEven after completing the program, graduates won’t start making six figures for a number of years. Salaries are usually in the $33,000-$56,000 range until they work their way up into positions of more responsibility, which usually require additional classroom study.

At airport towers, air traffic controllers typically work their way up the totem pole starting by providing basic flight information to pilots. They then progress to become a ground controller, who manages taxiways, inactive runways, and holding areas. Local controllers are responsible for active runway surfaces and clearing aircraft for takeoff and landing. The ultimate positions at airports are departure controllers and arrival controllers.

Find out: What Impact Will Obama Administration Have on Air Travel?

In these positions, there is no margin for error. Mistakes can be deadly and even near-misses make headlines. Because of the high stress levels, most air traffic controllers are eligible for retirement benefits at the age of 50, or after 25 years on the job.

Because performance in this field has been proven to diminish with age, controllers are required to retire at 56. However, if they demonstrate outstanding ability and experience, they may receive a federal exemption to work until the age of 61.

If you’re concerned about who is guiding your plane to safety, rest assured that becoming an air traffic controller is not for those who are looking to get rich quick.

By Dan Bence for

Related Links:, How To Become an Air Traffic Controller, FAA on Pay, Benefits and Training,, Links: