Air traffic controllers direct commercial and military aircraft pilots to ensure departures, arrivals and flight plans are safe and timely. Their primary responsibilities are to facilitate the flow of air traffic to prevent collisions. Although they don't need a college degree, air traffic controllers must pass requirements established by the Federal Aviation Administration or have previous air traffic control experience, such as in the military. A lack of a college degree makes little difference in salary because pay mainly depends upon experience and years of service.
Air traffic controllers with no experience in the industry and no college degree can apply for positions as long as they have three years of progressively more responsible work experience, some college coursework leading to a bachelor's degree or a combination of the two. Applicants must be U.S. citizens less than 31 years of age, pass medical and security examinations, pass the FAA pre-employment exam, speak English and complete an interview. According to the FAA, air traffic controller recruits who are training and haven't passed the pre-employment exam or received permanent assignments earn $17,803 annually. Recruits include trainees from the general public and graduates of academic training programs supported by the FAA's Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative, a program that supports two- and four-year nonengineering aviation degrees from participating universities that offer basic courses in air traffic control.
The FAA's pre-employment exam for air traffic controllers is an eight-hour, computer-based exam. The general public, with or without a college degree, and those enrolled in an AT-CTI program must take the test and score a 70 or above to pass. Applicants who have prior air traffic control experience don't have to take the test. The Aviation Careers Division evaluates applications and refers candidates for testing. FAA contractors schedule dates and times for applicants to test.
Air traffic controllers who have completed all requirements and have passed the FAA pre-employment test have a starting annual wage of $37,070, according to the FAA. Those who are part of the veterans' recruitment program, are retired military air traffic controllers or were former air traffic controllers hired by the federal government also receive a starting salary of $37,070 when they have been out of the industry and are returning.
Average Annual Salaries
According to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for air traffic controllers was $108,040. The FAA reports that air traffic controllers who had completed on-the-job training had an average annual salary of $118,000 in 2010. When including those undergoing training, the average annual salary level was $104,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,480, and the top 10 percent earned more than $165,660, according to the BLS.
The BLS expects employment of air traffic controllers to decrease by 3 percent through 2020. Competition for air traffic controller positions will remain high, because recruits and trained controllers outnumber available positions, and most new air traffic controller positions will be replacing retiring workers. The BLS reports that job opportunities will be greatest for young applicants in their early 20s who have an air traffic management degree from a certified FAA training program.
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