How to Become an Air Traffic Controller
An overview of the air traffic control application and hiring process in the U.S.
If you've found this page, you're on a promising path. Air traffic control is a very unique and rewarding career. It is relatively unknown but highly sought after due to excellent pay, benefits, and job security. However, getting hired is not quite as simple as submitting your résumé. This page will help explain the hiring process and guide you through the first steps.
In the United States, the National Airspace System is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), making it the primary employer of air traffic controllers. In addition to employing the most controllers, the FAA offers the best pay and benefits and hires people without any prior experience or education in air traffic control. Due to these factors, this website focus heavily on getting hired by the FAA.
The US military trains enlisted soldiers as air traffic controllers. Many of these controllers will transition into employment with the FAA after serving their commitment to the military. Joining the military and navigating its workings is an entire subject to itself and one that is not discussed on this page.
Contract and DoD
The FAA contracts out some low-activity control towers to private companies. The Department of Defense (DoD) also employs controllers on a contract basis. These jobs require previous certified experience and may entail working in places such as the Middle East.
FAA Hiring Announcements
The FAA does not continuously accept applications for air traffic controllers. Instead, they intermittently post hiring announcements (AKA "bids"). The applicants to each hiring announcement are processed as a batch and the FAA may end up hiring as many as a few thousand qualified applicants from a single announcement. The FAA releases two types of hiring announcements:
Prior Experience Bids
These announcements require 52 weeks of experience as a certified controller.
All-Sources (AKA "Off the Street") Bids
If you do not have previous experience as a controller, this is the type of hiring announcement you need to watch for. Applicants from any source are eligible to apply (hence the nickname "off the street"), as long as they meet the minimum requirements. Veterans and applicants who have completed a Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program are also eligible to apply to these bids, and they receive some special considerations.
How to Apply to an All-Sources Bid
All of the FAA's hiring announcements are posted on the federal government's official USAJobs website. To apply, you will need to create an account and build your profile. It is recommended that you create your resume using the resume builder on USAJobs, rather than simply uploading an existing resume. Here are some things to expect about the job announcement:
- The announcement will have a title such as Air Traffic Control Specialist - Trainee.
- The announcements usually stay open for one week, giving you plenty of time to complete your application.
- The appointment type will be temporary; you become a permanent employee only after passing initial training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City.
- The listed salary will be low ($25,000-$30,000). This salary applies only while you are at the academy and it does not include the per diem for lodging and food, which is approximately $100/day and non-taxable (and thus more valuable than the starting salary).
- The location will be simply "United States". Your permanent facility will not be decided until you finish the academy. At that point, your class is given a list of facilities that need controllers and you will choose from that list based on your ranking in your class.
When is the Next Hiring Announcement?
The FAA does not typically give much, if any, advanced notice. There are often rumors that begin to circulate soon before an announcement occurs, but no one knows for sure until it is posted on USAJobs. One way to estimate when the next hiring announcement will occur is to consider the dates of the previous announcements. The most recent all-sources bids occurred in:
- March 2015
- August 2016
- July 2017
- July 2018
- June 2019
- January 2020
As you can see, there has been all-sources announcement approximately once per year. From this trend, it is possible to approximate the next hiring bid, but there are no guarantees. If you have an account on USAJobs, you can save a job search and receive an email whenever new results are found. Your search terms could simply include "air traffic control" or "2152", which is the government's job series code for air traffic control positions. We are also happy to let you know when there is a new announcement if you provide your email address below:
The requirements below have been simplified from previous hiring announcements. Future hiring announcements are likely to be the same or very similar. The requirements are rigid, but there are several ways to qualify.
Conditions of Employment
- US citizenship is required.
- Persons who have reached their 31st birthday at the time the announcement closes may not be appointed.
- Selective Service registration is required for males born after 12/31/1959.
- All applicants must pass the Air Traffic Skills Assessment (ATSA) Exam.
There are many ways to qualify for this type of hiring announcement. Applicants must fit into either pool:Pool 1
- Be a graduate from a participating Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program and receive a recommendation; or
- Be an eligible veteran.
- Document 3 years of full time (40 hours per week) work experience; or
- Document a full 4-year course of study leading to a bachelor's degree; or
- Document some combination of work experience and education equivalent to the above; or
- Applicants may also qualify with specialized work experience as a controller, with a dispatcher certificate, an instrument flight rating, a navigator certificate, or 350 hours of flight time as a copilot or higher.
What to Expect After Applying
Everyone who meets the minimum qualifications for employment is essentially on even footing. Someone with a 3 years of work experience at a fast food restaurant will have the same opportunity as an experienced airline pilot!
The next step in the hiring process in the Air Traffic Skills Assessment (ATSA), an aptitude test. This test is the real differentiator in who will receive an offer for employment and who will not. In previous hiring cycles, applicants have been notified via email that they have been selected to take the ATSA approximately 8-10 weeks after the closing date for a hiring announcement. The email will contain instructions for scheduling your test at a supervised testing center.
Preparing for the ATSA
The ATSA is composed of several sub-tests designed to assess skills such as memory, spatial/visual awareness, logic, and reading. It is highly advisable to prepare for the ATSA using test prep software such as Job Test Prep. The ATSA is intimidating and competitive, but like any test, you can prepare for it and improve your performance by practicing and by knowing what to expect. This test is the gateway to a great career, so it makes sense to earnestly and thoroughly prepare for it.