Meeting the Requirements
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Be no older than 30 if you are new to the profession. People with previous experience as an air traffic controller can re-enter the profession if they are 31 or older, if they have prior experience as an air traffic controller before they turned 31. The DOD will hire civilian air traffic controllers over 30; however, the FAA will not train people with no prior experience who are older than 30.
Civilian air traffic controllers who work for the Defense Department can also transfer to the FAA, provided they were 30 or younger when hired by the DOD.
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Be a United States citizen. The FAA only accepts citizens of the United States for its training programs.
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Meet the education and experience requirements. You can qualify to become an air traffic controller for the FAA if you meet one of the following requirements:
Have a continuous year of experience as a civilian or military air traffic controller.
Have 3 years of (any) work experience, a bachelor’s degree or some equivalent combination of work experience and collegiate study. The FAA considers a year of college, 30 semester hours or 45 quarter hours, equal to 9 months of work. Your experience and coursework should be of a nature that shows you can handle the duties of being an air traffic controller.
Complete the FAA’s Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) 2- or 4-year program and receive an official recommendation from the school whose program you attended. More information about this program is available from the FAA website.
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Know what you’re up against. In 1981, President Reagan famously fired a whole bunch of striking ATCs. As a result, those who were newly hired then are now retiring. In 2009, there was a huge spike in numbers and now that number is being forced to drop. 4 years ago would’ve been a great time to become an ATC, but job prospects are a bit bleaker now.
The BLS has job growth at a -3% rate. If you do want employment, it’s preferred that you have military experience or rock the AT-CTI program.
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Part 1 Quiz
Which of the following is a requirement to become air traffic controller for the FAA?
An associate’s degree.
Complete the FAA’s Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative 2- or 4-year program.
3 continuous years of experience as a military air traffic controller.
5 years of any work experience.
All of the above.
Getting Educated or Getting Lucky
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Wait for a PUBNAT opening or complete the AT-CTI program. If you’re not already landing planes in the military (and most of us aren’t), it’s safe to say you’re considering the two other paths: either getting hired directly by the FAA or going to an FAA-affiliated school. Let’s cover both paths.
If you’re a regular Joe, you can wait for the FAA to announce an open posting on the USAJobs website. You must see the word PUBNAT in the title (stands for “public national” and is open to, you guessed it, the public) — if that word isn’t there, it is not open to the general public. Make sure to fill out all the information (and correctly) on the online application. If you don’t, your application may be overlooked.
If you’re a regular Joe with time, money, and academic motivation, find a school that has an AT-CTI program — a complete list can be found here. It’s either a 2-year or 4-year program. If you go this route and complete it, you will be expedited through the process (though there is no guarantee of employment).
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Take the AT-SAT. 4 to 8 weeks after the PUBNAT announcement closes or 6 months prior to your graduation, you will be asked to take the AT-SAT (so check your email). When there are more applicants than testing slots, applicants are chosen at random. If you completed an AT-CTI program and weren’t selected when you first applied to take the test, you are given priority for the next testing session provided you still meet the other requirements.
The written test is a comprehensive, computer-administered test designed to evaluate your ability to learn how to be an air traffic controller. They will give you 8 hours with 75 minutes for breaks. You will be asked math questions, airplane control/dial questions, questions on radar, angles, and different flight scenarios, etc.
Wondering how to study for it? Air Traffic Control Career Prep by Patrick Mattson is a good place to start. Image titled Be an Air Traffic Controller Step 7
Get on the referral list. If you scored above 70 or above, you may get placed onto a referral list. You need to get on this list to proceed any further. Even if you do score a 70, you are not necessarily guaranteed anything — there could be 14,395 people that got a 70.1. You will be notified via phone or email if you qualify.
If you scored 70 to 84.9 you are deemed qualified. If you scored 85 and above, you are deemed well-qualified. Obviously, the FAA goes through the well-qualified list first.
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Receive notice to go through a PEPC or interview at a local facility. Once you’re on the referral list, there are two routes you may be ushered through: the expedited route (at a PEPC (a pre-employment processing center) or the traditional route (at some local facility). Either way, eventually you’ll get all your screenings and interview done — this will be discussed in the next section, but you’ll get notified of your path now.
This should all be done in one day (probably). If that’s the case for you, take some food with you and dress to impress. You’ll be there all day (and there will only be candy and waterand you’ll be surrounded by people that are judging you as a possible candidate for this job. Leave the overalls at home.
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Fill out your e-QIP. Along will all the other stuff that will pile up in your inbox, you’ll get notice to fill out your e-QIP. This is just a questionnaire you must fill out — the electronic version of the SF-85/86 for Public Trust Positions. Be sure to do this — it’s the step that must be completed before the government initiates security checks on you (yay).
If you’re a terminal applicant, you’ll fill out the SF-85. If you’re an en route applicant, the SF-86.
There are different types of air traffic controllers for different segments of flight. Tower controllers go from the gate to 5 miles (8.0 km) or so from the airport; approach controllers have the aircraft from about 60 miles (97 km) from the airport (below 18,000 ft); the center controller has the craft through higher altitudes to its destination, where the process gets reversed. Image titled Be an Air Traffic Controller Step 10
Pass the MMPI-2. That stands for the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory. It’s pretty standard for all FAA, DoD, and CIA jobs. It’s basically identifying your personality structure and your psychopathology. Whatever you do, don’t answer the 567 questions like you think they want you to answer them. Answering “Have you ever lied?” with “No” will raise a red flag.
Some of the questions are pretty ridiculous. Do you see animals that aren’t there? Are people out to get you? Have you failed because others made you? Will people think you’re nuts after you take this test because they want to see you fail? Dead serious. It’s a lot of the same question over and over (in this case, “are you paranoid?”) to see if you’re consistent.
If you fail it, you’re not necessarily outta the game. You’ll just probably get back-logged in the system for about three months and dealt with then. Score
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Part 2 Quiz
What do you need to score on the AT-SAT to be considered “well-qualified” by the FAA?
70 or above
70 to 84.9
85 or above
Getting Cleared for Employment
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Pass a physical examination and drug screening. You need to be able to handle the physical rigors of being an air traffic controller, including having normal color vision. Once hired, you’ll have to have an annual physical and drug screen to assure that you’re still fit for the job, in addition to a hearing exam, blood pressure exam, and an EKG.
The FAA does hire disabled veterans, provided their disabilities are such that they don’t interfere with their ability to work as an air traffic controller
Bring all your medical records with you. If you have an incomplete file, the process will go slower than it already is.
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Pass a security clearance. You know those questions employers ask you that you don’t think they’ll actually ever get around to verifying? Well, the FAA does that and takes it a step further. They will contact your references and people who know you. They will fingerprint you. They will research your criminal record exhaustively. They will check your credit. So everything you write down needs to be completely honest.
If you have debt, don’t fret. Tons of us do. It’s only if you have six figures and it’s all due to a gambling addition or you spent it all on pineapples or something will an eyebrow raise.
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Pass the FAA’s interview. If you don’t have previous experience as an air traffic controller, you must go through the FAA’s testing and interview process. This is generally brief and to the point. The questions are fairly straightforward, talking about teamwork, stressful situations, and general questions any employer might ask.
The interview is designed to evaluate applicants on their alertness, poise, diction and ability to give instructions in as few words as possible. Candidates are also evaluated for their ability to handle large amounts of information and to make quick decisions.
You’ll also be asked those super awesome questions like, “Why would you make a good ATC?” and “Where do you see your career going?” Not exactly tough stuff.
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Receive your TOL. That’s your Tentative Offer Letter. HR will handle this. Once you get it (don’t pester them for it; it’ll come), it’ll have your employment facility (in other words, where you’ll be working) and how much you’ll get paid. This is only a guarantee of employment IF you pass all the background checks and whatnot. Don’t start celebrating just yet.
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Get the phone call. After it’s all been cleared, your HR rep should call you and confirm when you’ll be starting your classes. Each new ATC has to go through the FAA Academy before they begin work. They’ll give you a time and a place — would you like to have the spot reserved for you in the class? WHY, YES, YES YOU WOULD.
Don’t say no. A jillion other people are waiting for this offer, too. If you say no now, it could never happen again.
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Part 3 Quiz
True or False: To qualify for a position as an air traffic controller, you need to have your fingerprints taken.
Beginning Your Career
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Attend and graduate from the FAA Academy. The FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, trains those who pass the test for 12 weeks in the fundamentals of being an air traffic controller. Coursework includes FAA regulations, the airway system, how various aircraft perform and the use of equipment on the job.
Those who graduated from the AT-CTI program can bypass the first 5 weeks of the Academy.
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Become certified as an air traffic controller. FAA Academy graduates are assigned to a facility where they work as “developmental controllers” under the supervision of experienced air traffic controllers. New controllers can expect to be certified within 2 to 4 years, depending on their performance and the availability of the facility staff to train them, while controllers with previous experience usually take less time to earn FAA certification.
Once certified, you’re subject to semiannual reviews of your performance. This is standard for any serious career.
That six figure salary the BLS boasts isn’t easy to come by. You’ll need to work your way up the totem pole to find one of those. Image titled Be an Air Traffic Controller Step 18
Start saving lives. You’re gonna be doing some pretty cool stuff. Without you, those souls flying through the air would be up a creek without a paddle. While your job is really cool, it’s also intense. You have to focus the entire time you’re on the job. That’s 8 hours of constant concentration.
This job, while not physically exhausting, can be very mentally exhausting. It’s not your average desk job. Airports run pretty much 24/7, so there’s always things to be done. If you’re a stickler for rest and relaxation, this isn’t the career for you.
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Stay awake. Because of how planes are scheduled, you won’t have consistent day, afternoon, or night shifts. If Ron works all the mornings and Sue works all the nights, Ron’s constantly landing 3,429 planes at a time while Sue gets to read a book while she waits for United Flight 101 to come in. Tuesday you’ll work in the morning and Wednesday you’ll work graveyard to keep it balanced. In short, stay awake.
Actually, ATCs falling asleep on the job is actually becoming a problem. As a result, they can no longer work alone during night shifts. However, scheduling is staying the same (it’s only fair) and the shifts are, too (generally 8 hours long). If you have a family, this can put a serious damper on your bonding. Image titled Be an Air Traffic Controller Step 20
Stay calm. You will be presented with a number of stressful situations. If nothing else, you’ll be asked to do a 258 things at once. It’s important that you keep a level head and don’t freak out. You’ve been trained. You know what to do. Everything will be fine.
If you remember to breathe, you’ll be better off. Think of your training, what your superior would do, and handle the moment. It’ll be over before you know it. When the rush hour ends, you can sit back with your coffee, start a conversation with the interesting ex-military guy you’ve been working with for a few months now, and take in how incredible your job is. Kudos!
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Stay sane. The stresses of being an air traffic controller are innumerable. If something goes wrong, you may end up blaming yourself and, beating around the bush aside, losing it. It’s easy to get shaken, especially in the beginning. It’s imperative that you understand that this career choice is the very definition of demanding. Sure, busier airports will require more of you, but every position (regardless of its location) will deprive you of sleep, demand ultimate concentration, and can be potentially quite jarring. Got it?
They never said it’d be easy; they said it’d be worth it, right? This is a very, very respectable job — it’s simply important to know the benefits and drawbacks going in. When you go in with a level head, you’re more likely to succeed.
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Part 4 Quiz
Once you’ve been selected for the FAA Academy, how long should you expect to train?
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