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What Degree Do You Need To Be An Air Traffic Controller

By David Krug 8 minute read

Transportation specialists responsible for ensuring safe landing and departure procedures are referred to as Air Traffic Control (ATC). In order to ensure the safety of air travel, air traffic controllers play a critical role. Planes might collide on the runways and in the skies without their supervision and communication, resulting in chaos, disaster, and possibly even death.

Air traffic controllers need a college degree because of the necessity as well as the high levels of strain and the extensive technical expertise required. Aspiring air traffic controllers, on the other hand, have a variety of alternatives to select, including not just different levels of degrees but also various majors.

Life With a Degree in Air Traffic Control

In the United States, air travel is generally fairly secure. According to the International Air Transport Association, long-distance air travel is the safest means of transportation. Air traffic controllers, who work behind the scenes to assure the safety of air travel, are primarily responsible for this excellent safety record.

Air traffic controllers are the persons who engage with pilots on the ground to keep aircraft and other ground traffic adequately separated to prevent collisions and accidents. Every duty of an air traffic controller is meant to maintain a safe distance between aircraft to prevent crashes. Air traffic controllers contribute to the prompt takeoff and landing of airplanes, hence reducing unnecessary flight delays.

Controllers of air traffic review flight plans and instruct pilots on when and where to take off or land an aircraft. They must coordinate the movements of several planes and ground traffic, including bag-carrying vehicles and airport personnel.

During flights, air traffic controllers brief pilots on weather conditions and runway closures and communicate with aircraft on route to their destinations. Air traffic controllers are the first to recognize an emergency and warn airport staff.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, competent air traffic controllers must be well-organized, proficient in mathematical computations, and have remarkable problem-solving, communication, concentration, and decision-making skills. Expertise in transportation systems, public safety and security, training and teaching approaches, customer and personal service, as well as English ability.

What Do Air Traffic Controllers Get Paid?

Earning potential is unquestionably one of the perks of working as an air traffic controller. Air traffic controllers must undergo extensive training and education due to the critical nature of their work, yet they can expect to make well over $100,000 as a typical annual compensation.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $130,420 in 2020. (BLS). The top 10% of air traffic controllers in the United States made more than $184,780 per year, while even those in the bottom 10% of the profession earned an annual compensation of $72,760. Federal Aviation Administration-trained air traffic controllers may expect a starting salary of $38,193 in 2016, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 90% of air traffic controllers. Meaning that most air traffic controllers are entitled to get federal assistance. Paid time off, health insurance, life insurance, a pension plan, and a retirement savings plan are some of the perks available to FAA workers.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the organization that represents air traffic controllers, provides them with additional benefits like a high median wage and job security (NATCA). Even while the tough profession has its share of stressful moments, it is also thrilling and financially rewarding..

Is a degree required for air traffic controllers?

A two- or four-year college degree from an AT-CTI school is required for aspiring air traffic controllers. Designed to fulfill FAA regulations, several programs are available. Students will learn about several aspects of aviation, such as airspace, weather, clearances, federal rules, and how to read maps, as part of these classes.

As an air traffic controller, do you need a college degree? To become an air traffic controller, you don’t need a college degree, but you do need specialized training and certification. 

According to O*NET, 36% of air traffic controllers have a high school diploma or less as their greatest educational attainment. 21 percent of those working in this profession said they had a postsecondary certificate as the next most prevalent educational credential. One-fifth of all air traffic controllers have a four-year degree or above.

However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests that air traffic controllers obtain an associate’s degree in order to qualify for entry-level career prospects. Among them are the following:

  • A four-year college degree
  • A degree from an FAA-approved Collegiate Training Initiative in Air Traffic Management is required (AT-CTI)
  • At least three years of experience in progressively responsible roles
  • Post-secondary education and job experience of three years

Only a portion of what you need to become an air traffic controller may be learned in school. FAA regulations include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Age: Generally, air traffic controllers must be between the ages of 18 and 30.
  • Citizenship in the United States
  • A clean criminal record as verified by a security investigation and criminal background check
  • Passing a medical exam and drug testing
  • Speaking English fluently enough to be understood through radio communications
  • Pre-employment testing success

When pursuing a career as an air traffic controller, you may need to be willing to relocate. Attending FAA Academy training in Oklahoma is a definite possibility. New Hampshire, Georgia, Illinois, California, and Minnesota are the states where air traffic controllers make the greatest money right now.

According to the BLS, the average annual compensation for air traffic controllers in all of these states is $10,000 or more over the general median salary for the occupation, while the average annual salary for New Hampshire air traffic controllers is $17,000 above this overall median number.

Over a third of air traffic controllers have only a high school certificate, despite the fact that three of the four ways to become an air traffic controller need some sort of schooling. At least three years of work experience and passing the same admission examinations and training are required for those who do not have a college degree to pursue this job.

What to Expect From a Degree Program for Air Traffic Controllers

Whether you begin your preparation for an air traffic control degree program with a master’s degree in a more broad field of study or with a specialist degree program in this profession, your prerequisite courses will vary.

Curriculum for a Degree in Air Traffic Controller Specialization

At-CTI programs certified by the FAA may award bachelor’s or associate’s degrees, according to the FAA. Bachelor’s degrees in aviation and air traffic control often contain a more substantial management-related curriculum. A broader range of subjects is included in general education requirements in some bachelor’s degree programs.

Air traffic control students are expected to attend an introduction course, as well as coursework in air traffic control rules and terminal radar operations, aviation weather, and experiential or simulated flying in an associate’s degree program in air traffic control.

Many of these same topics will be covered in an aviation traffic management bachelor’s degree program, including advanced coursework, airport management, airline management, collaborative air traffic management, and en route radar and non-radar operations. For example, studies in management principles, aerospace safety, and air traffic management safety may be increasingly prevalent.

In order to decide when it is safe for aircraft to proceed, air traffic controllers use computers, radar equipment, and their own visual observations. They must study a wide range of technological abilities to become a controller of air traffic. Center TRACON Automation System’s En Route Descent Advisor (EDA), traffic management advisor (TMA), and multi-center traffic management advisor programs must be learned by air traffic controllers, according to O*NET. ARTS, advanced technologies, and oceanic procedures, as well as other forms of expert system software, should be taught to air traffic controllers (ATOP).

Air Traffic Controller Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bachelor’s degrees in transportation, engineering, and business are among the top possibilities for preparing for a job as an air traffic controller.

Freight management, logistics, supply chain technologies, legal ideas for transportation and supply chain management, airline, airport and seaport management are some of the areas that students pursuing a degree in transportation science and technology are likely to learn about. This includes studies on the fundamentals of financial and managerial concepts such as budgeting and forecasting.

There are colleges that specialize in marine (by boat) or aviation-specific transportation degree programs (air). In order to pursue a career as an ambitious air traffic controller, students should enroll in schools that focus on aviation rather than general transportation. 

They will attend lessons in air traffic control methodologies, as well as courses in general aviation administration and airport administration. They will also be required to participate in fieldwork in air traffic control as part of their studies.

Since the process of engineering design relies on mathematical and scientific concepts and computations, students majoring in engineering cannot avoid completing math and science courses. Civil engineering, environmental engineering, industrial engineering, and construction engineering are some of the most relevant engineering degrees to transportation science. Aerospace engineering is a subfield of engineering that deals with aircraft and spacecraft design and development.

There will be no courses specifically relevant to the aviation or transportation industry when studying for your bachelor’s degree in business. An air traffic controller training program that builds on a bachelor’s degree may be beneficial to you.

As part of the FAA Collegiate Training Initiative, more than 35 colleges currently offer AT-CTI programs that have been approved by the FAA.

Certification as an Air Traffic Controller

Having a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough to get you started in the field of air traffic control. An Air Traffic Control Tower Operator Certificate and an FAA Academy training program are also required, according to the BLS. You must first pass a pre-employment exam in order to be considered for this position.

The FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, will teach new air traffic controllers for two to five months after they are employed. This group of graduates is known as “development controllers,” and they are required to continue their education and training for a period of two to four years after they graduate from the program. ATC Tower Operator Certification can be obtained after gaining adequate on-the-job experience and expertise. Training at the FAA Academy involves both classroom lectures and hands-on practice using air traffic control simulators.

A minimum of 12 months after graduation is required to appear for the Air Traffic Standardized Aptitude Test (AT-SAT). Prioritization, visualization, decisiveness, plan-making, arithmetic, movement detection and the test-tolerance taker’s for high-intensity activities are all part of this comprehensive pre-employment computer examination. To become an air traffic controller, candidates must pass the exam.

David Krug