air traffic controller


Are you someone who enjoys the airport, and the hectic environment that comes with the operation of runways, landings, and takeoffs?

You might be interested in a career as an air traffic controller, one of the most important cogs in the machine of air travel.

If you aren’t worried about the need for very specific attention to detail and split-second decisions in case of an emergency, you may have found the perfect new career.

As you read, we’ll be taking a look at the average air traffic controller salary, and what you can expect to make in different parts of the country.

Life as an Air Traffic Controller

The number one duty of an air traffic controller is the assurance of safety for those in the air. Controllers minimize any interference during the intersection of flight paths for commercial airliners, and their direction will reduce any delays for arrivals and departures.

Air traffic control crew uses special computer equipment to monitor the movement of all planes in the air.

Those in air traffic control will monitor nearby weather and ensure that any landings are made safely in case of an emergency, sometimes involving aircraft not originally scheduled for landing at a given airport.

Types of Traffic Controllers

Several different kinds of air traffic controllers work in an airport’s safety department. Tower controllers are in charge of vehicle movement on runways. This includes airplanes as well as all ground transport and baggage handlers. Tower controllers remain in their position from the control area and can manage anywhere from 3 to 30-mile distances from their location.

Approach/Departure Controllers

departue controller

Controllers in approach and departure make sure that any aircraft entering an airport keeps within a minimum separation required for the safety of everyone involved. Approach and departure controllers send clearance to enter an airspace and use radar equipment to monitor flights as well as weather conditions and critical alerts that affect air travel. Approach controllers will aid pilots and the rest of the crew from takeoff until it reaches the threshold of facility airspace.

En Route Controllers

En Route Controllers

There are also en route controllers, who monitor the path of aircraft once it has successfully departed the airspace of a facility. Unlike other air traffic controllers, en route controllers can usually be found at air route centers, which you won’t find at actual airports. Airspaces are assigned to air route centers respective to their geographical layout and the amount of air traffic seen in their area.

If necessary, en route controllers will adjust the flight path of a plane while guiding it to a safe landing. Once en route controllers are finished, they hand off duties to approach and departure controllers.

The Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center employs a number of air traffic controllers, which looks at airline travel on a national level. When they identify a potential problem with travel operations, they relay information to local traffic controllers. The goal of the command center is to keep a larger eye on the sky and lighten the workload of smaller air traffic control departments, who need to focus on their immediate surroundings.

Air Traffic Controller Salaries

So, just how much does an air traffic controller salary look like these days?

As of May 2017, the average annual wage for an air traffic controller was $120,260. This number can vary quite a bit based on location and industry, which is what we’ll be looking at in some of the charts below.

Air Traffic Controller Highest Salary by State

Let’s start by looking at some of the highest paying states for air traffic controllers. The top five states are seen in the list below:

State Average Air Traffic Controller Salary

New Hampshire










​​​​If you’re curious why New Hampshire, a geographically small state, is at the top of the list, the answer comes from the military.

New Hampshire is home to several military bases in Newington. Air traffic controllers are an essential element of exercises conducted at each location, and government contracts for air traffic controllers can be quite lucrative. The same can be said for Virginia, as the Air Traffic Control System Command Center is found in Warrenton.

Georgia pays air traffic controllers well due to the high amount of traffic seen in Atlanta, home to the busiest international airport in the country.

Furthermore, Atlanta is the main hub for Delta Airlines, and with such a high concentration of air travel in one spot, it makes sense that some of the most well-paid air traffic controllers work at the Grand Central Station of air travel.

Air Traffic Controller Highest Salary by Industry

Next, we’ll investigate air traffic controller salary according to which industry pays the best. The answer might seem obvious, but there’s some details you might not be aware of:

Industry Average Air Traffic Controller Salary

Scheduled Air Transport 


Federal Executive Branch


Architectural and Engineering


Support Activities


Management of Companies


Looking past the top entry, we note that the federal government pays the most to air traffic controller salaries.

Considering the high amount of military operations conducted with aircraft, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, especially if you factor in the amount of non-military aircraft monitoring for government officials and representatives.

Air Traffic Controller Employment by State

How likely are you to find a job as an air traffic controller? Get an idea with the chart below, where we list the top five states in the country according to career numbers:

State Number of Air Traffic Controller Positions


Career Numbers




Average salary of $129,680



Average salary of $120,590



New York 


Average salary of $129,460



We can attribute these numbers to the high number of major cities with multiple airports spread across each state.

In California alone, major international airports operate out of San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, while Florida has Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. The same can be said for Illinois (Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway) and New York (JFK and LaGuardia).

Becoming an Air Traffic Controller

If the numbers seen in an average air traffic controller salary have convinced you to pursue this as a career, you may be interested to know that there are a few different paths to becoming one.

Because air traffic controllers are directly employed by the federal government, there are some automatic requirements before we even discuss education or work experience:

*Having U.S. citizenship

*Successfully passing a medical exam, drug test, and background investigation

*Get through the FAA preemployment exam

*Achieve a passing score on the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery

*Begin training at FAA Academy before age 31, and complete the course

Along with the screening process, all potential air traffic controllers will need at least an associate degree from an AT-CTi program. These accredited schools are designed with air traffic controller careers in mind.

Earning an Associate Degree

While they don’t have a set curriculum, the courses all focus on aviation and safety for a future in aircraft monitoring. Class topics will include weather conditions, federal safety regulations, how to read charts that affect air traffic, and issuing clearances during arrival and departure.

The FAA Academy is located in Oklahoma City. Length of time spent in the training facility will vary according to an applicant’s background. If your previous education is not as extensive, you might need to catch up in certain subject areas. After graduating from the academy, trainees are designated as developmental air traffic controllers, where they can work under supervision until finishing all the necessary requirements.

Anyone entering the FAA Academy has to pass a biographical assessment, a kind of personality test to see if you have the sort of personality and psychological makeup necessary to hold a career as an air traffic controller.

Getting Additional Training and Credentials

Air traffic controller salary will increase with additional training and credentials earned at the academy. If you have previous experience in the industry upon entering the academy, you won’t have to spend as much time going through training as other candidates.

All air traffic controllers are required to obtain certification as an Air Traffic Control Tower Operator, or maintain the appropriate qualification or supervision. At least three years of work experience is necessary to pursue a career in air traffic control, but there are no specific requirements for industries where previous employment took place. There will be periodic drug screenings and job performance evaluations as well.

Air traffic controller

Skills You Need to Have

For a future in air traffic control, you should possess high skills in math, organization, and decision making. In a high-pressure environment involving the direction and maintenance of airline safety, you need to be able to focus and maintain control over a situation that may involve inclement weather or an equipment issue on an aircraft.

Clear communication is an asset for all air traffic controllers. The ability to speak and hear perfect English is essential for a direct conversation between pilots and the control tower. At any given time, you could have several voices in your ear while wearing a headset, and you’ll need to be able to determine who is speaking and which is the most important.

Making Your Decision

If an air traffic controller salary attracts you to the profession, and you think you can handle the busy environment that comes with airline communication and direction, go for it.

An exciting new career and opportunity may be awaiting you.

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About Diane Turner

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