Air Traffic Control Specialist: Duties, Outlook and Salary

Sep 22, 2019

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become an air traffic control specialist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

Organizing flight planes, ensuring plane safety, making pilots aware of changes in weather and flight patterns, as well as directing landing and take-off paths are all included in the duties of an air traffic control specialist. There's a slow growth expected for jobs in this field, though the salary potential is good.

Essential Information

Air traffic control specialists, also known as air traffic controllers, promote the safety of airplanes by directing the movement of air traffic. They must ensure that planes maintain a safe distance from one another and keep delays to a minimum. Those interested in becoming an air traffic control specialist usually pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree program that is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and they need to take the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT). Around two to five months of additional training at the FAA Academy is required before graduates can become certified air traffic controllers.

Required Education Associate's or bachelor's degree related to air traffic control; additional intensive training through the FAA Academy
Other Requirements Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 1%* (for all air traffic controllers)
Median Salary (2018) $124,540 annually* (for air traffic controllers)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


The first priority for air traffic control specialists is safety. They monitor a variety of factors and communicate with many parties to ensure that air traffic is safely managed. Prior to takeoff, they organize flight plans and direct planes to runways. They keep in communication with pilots and alert them of weather, wind or visibility changes at different altitudes. They also provide navigational information. Upon landing, air traffic controllers inform pilots of ground traffic and direct them to their assigned gates. In case of emergency, air traffic controllers alert the proper authorities and initiate search and rescue.

Air traffic control specialists maintain communication with other towers and airports. When a plane arrives or departs, they accept or transfer communication to controllers at other airports. They also communicate with baggage handlers and other airport workers to keep them informed of flight schedules and changes.

Control specialists must ensure that equipment is functioning properly. They inspect and adjust radios and runway lighting. They also keep and review records of flight patterns and daily activity. Air traffic control specialists must follow federal laws regarding flight documentation.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2018, air traffic controllers were employed in approximately 24,300 positions; most worked for the FAA. Job growth for air traffic controllers is expected to grow by 1% for the years 2018 through 2028 due to technology advances, according to the BLS.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) trains and hires nearly all air traffic control specialists. Rates can vary based on location and the complexity of a controller's employing facility. In May 2018, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for air traffic controllers was $124,540. The lowest-paid workers earned $68,090 or less annually in May 2018. The highest-paid air traffic controllers earned $178,650 or more annually that year.

The many safety risks involved in the job of an air traffic control specialist are why these workers need extensive training before becoming certified specialists. An approved bachelor's degree, an exam, and additional training are in the future of any aspiring air traffic control specialist.

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