Career Option: Air Traffic Controller

The air traffic control (ATC) profession is largely misunderstood by the non-aviation public. Many envision individuals standing on airport surfaces with batons in their hands, directing aircraft into and out of airports. The aviation public knows and appreciates (at least in most cases) what the real job entails and the importance of having an experienced controller on the job.

The primary purpose of air traffic control is to provide for the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of aircraft through the skies. The position is one that requires highly specialized knowledge, skills, and abilities. Controllers apply specified separation standards that allow aircraft to maintain safe distances from each other in their delegated airspace areas and also on airport surfaces.

The job carries a heavy responsibility and requires an individual who can analyze situations at a moment’s notice, make quick calculations and react in a safe and efficient way. Controllers must possess the ability to think in “3-D”; in other words, be able to picture in their minds not only lateral limits of airspace, but also the vertical. They must have a thorough knowledge of procedures and phraseology, the language of Air Traffic Control. In most instances, controllers must issue instructions to pilots in a very specific way, using very specific words and phrases because misinterpretation can have tragic consequences.

Controlled airspace (that airspace that comes under ATC jurisdiction) is segmented into classes known as Alpha (A), Bravo (B), Charlie (C), Delta (D) and Echo (E). The determining factors as to how a segment of airspace is classified are:

  1. Safety
  2. Users’ needs
  3. Volume of traffic
  4. National Security

Safety of course, is always the first concern when designating airspace categories.

Users’ Needs takes into consideration the type of traffic at a given airport, i.e. general aviation vs air carriers, etc.

Volume of traffic deals with the daily number of aircraft takeoffs and landings at the airport.

National Security considers where the airport is located in proximity to areas requiring increased surveillance, i.e. the White House, Camp David, Cape Kennedy, etc.

Controlled Airspace Classes

Class A airspace overlies the entire contiguous United States and begins, in most cases, at 18,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL). All aircraft flying within class A airspace must be on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan and must have an ATC clearance.

Class B airspace is designated for the busier airports in the country (Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, etc.) The amount of airspace delegated to Class B varies, but in most instances, they extend from the surface up to and including 10,000 ft. MSL. Because size of the area owned by these airports, Radar is a necessary tool used by ATC to ensure separation between aircraft and the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic operating within their boundaries. A terminal radar facility is referred to as a TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control).

Class C airspace is not as restrictive as class B in that the airport that it serves is not as busy in terms of volume of traffic, yet the users’ needs are sufficient enough that radar is required.

Class D airspace is even less restrictive. Airports with this delegation are not as busy in terms of traffic volume or users’ needs, yet a control tower is needed to ensure safety and radar is not normally needed.

Class E airspace encompasses most of the areas between the above mentioned classes and begins at specified altitudes above the surface.

ATC is a broad field that encompasses most of the airspace in the country. There are three types of Air Traffic facilities that are assigned the responsibility of keeping the skies safe. They are:

Terminal ATC Facilities

Air Traffic Control Tower

Terminal facilities: These can be divided into 2 categories – Control Towers and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

Tower controllers control aircraft within the immediate vicinity of the airport and use either visual observation to locate aircraft or a certified tower radar display that is designed specifically to aid the tower controller in locating aircraft that may not be spotted visually. Most tower controlled airspace (also referred to as Class Delta airspace) encompasses an approximate 5-statute-mile radius around the airport, but can vary size depending on its locality.

Positions of operation in a typical control tower are:

  • Local Control
  • Ground Control
  • Flight Data/Clearance Delivery
    • Local Control (LC): Issues information and clearances to air and vehicular traffic operating on the landing area, to VFR (Visual Flight Rules) traffic operating in the airspace area and to IFR traffic released to control jurisdiction. A list of the more common local control duties include:
      1. Determining runway/s in use.
      2. Issuing landing and takeoff clearances
      3. Issuing landing information
      4. Sequencing landing traffic
      5. Coordinating with other positions of operation
      6. Issuing weather and NOTAM information as necessary
      7. Operating runway and approach lights
      8. Receiving and relaying PIREPs
    • Ground Control (GC): Assists other operating positions by handling taxiing aircraft and vehicular traffic on the movement area. Some of these duties include:
      1. Providing instructions to aircraft taxiing to and from the runway/s
      2. Controlling taxiway lighting
      3. Issuing clearances to IFR departures. (At busier facilities this function is performed by the clearance delivery (CD) position in order to reduce congestion on the frequency. No surveillance or control over the movement area is exercised by this position).
      4. Coordinating traffic movements affecting Local Control (LC)
      5. Issuing weather and NOTAM information as appropriate
      6. Controlling vehicles on the movement area
      7. Directing emergency equipment to necessary locations
      8. Relaying runway and taxiway condition information to airport management
    • Flight Data (FD): Receives, posts and relays flight data concerning IFR traffic and, as directed, assists in the operation of the facility. Some of these duties include:
      1. Receiving and relaying IFR departure clearances
      2. Relaying weather and NOTAM information to other positions of operation
      3. Forwarding IFR departure times to the ARTCC
      4. Aiding control positions by relaying information as directed
      5. Collecting, tabulating and storing daily records


TRACONs (Terminal Radar Approach Control) serve larger airports which own much more airspace than Class Delta surface areas and whose volume of traffic and users needs demand increased surveillance. TRACON controllers are RADAR controllers whose primary responsibility is to provide Radar spacing, sequencing, and separation service to arriving aircraft, and to provide Radar services to enable departing aircraft to safely get established on their routes of flight. Most TRACONs are located at the airport that they serve, although several consolidated TRACONs are now being used to serve multiple airports.

Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC)

Air Route Traffic Control Center

En-Route (also referred to as Center) controllers are responsible for the safety of aircraft primarily at higher altitudes, who are transitioning between terminal areas. En-Route facilities, as opposed to terminal facilities, own thousands of square miles of airspace mostly at high altitudes. There are 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers in the Unites States. The sheer size of the airspace owned by each center demands many more controllers than are needed at towers and TRACONs. Every center has multiple sectors and each sector has many controllers assigned to provide ATC service.

How can you become an Air Traffic Controller?

The federal government hires from 4 sources:

  • Former military controllers
  • Former controllers from the private sector (non-FAA jobs)
  • Graduates from Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) colleges (there are currently 36 CTI colleges in the United States and Puerto Rico).
  • General public announcements

Before attempting to enter employment, individuals need to be aware of certain minimum requirements as specified in FAR 65, Subpart B, which outlines the qualifications for controllers.

  • You must be at least 18 years of age, but not older than 30.
  • You must be able to speak the English language (the international language of Air Traffic Controllers) without impediment.
  • You must possess a 2nd class medical certificate for Air Traffic Control issued through an FAA certified examiner. Air Traffic Controllers are required to maintain medical certificates throughout their career as long as they are talking to, or directly supervising someone who is controlling aircraft.
  • You must possess a record that is free of any convictions that may prevent getting a security clearance.
  • You will be subject to pre-employment drug and alcohol testing and thereafter, random drug and alcohol testing.

It is also very important to understand that Air Traffic Control is much more than a job; it is a profession. A profession requires dedication and commitment to the job. Do research; spend time (if possible) at an ATC facility to observe the job. This will help you to determine if it is commitment that you personally want to make.

Learning how to be a controller requires many long hours of study and preparation. Getting hired is just the beginning. When you walk through the door at your assigned facility, you will be facing from 1 ½ – 4 years of rigorous training. There will be mountains of written material to learn as well as on-the-job training at each position that you will be responsible for. When you reach the rank of Certified Professional Controller, you will reap the benefits of your hard work; a rewarding career, great compensation, great retirement options and most of all the satisfaction of keeping the lives of thousands of air travelers safe.