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Detailed Guide for

Air Traffic Controllers in San Diego County

May also be called: Air Traffic Control Specialists, Air Traffic Controllers (Enroute Option), Air Traffic Controllers (Tower Option), Certified Professional Controllers

Specialties within this occupation include: Airport Tower or Terminal Controllers; En Route Controllers; Flight Service Specialists

What Would I Do?

Air Traffic Controllers are responsible for 200,000 aircraft each day. They direct air traffic flow according to established procedures that ensure flight safety. They authorize, regulate, and control commercial airline flights following federal government regulations.

Most civilian Air Traffic Controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and some work for the Department of Defense (DOD). They work in one of three specialties: Airport Tower or Terminal Controllers, En Route Controllers, and Flight Service Specialists.

Airport Tower or Terminal Controllers use radar and visual observation to regulate a single airport’s traffic. During arrival and departure, several Controllers direct each plane. They communicate with pilots by radio as they give permission to take off and land. They also direct ground traffic, which includes taxiing aircraft, vehicles, and airport workers. Once planes leave their assigned airspace, they transfer control of the aircraft to an En Route Controller.

En Route Controllers regulate flights between airports. They contact pilots by radio and control their position in the airways between tower jurisdictions. Using radar and computer equipment, they maintain a progressive check on aircraft and issue instructions, clearance, and advice. When an aircraft leaves the airspace assigned to an en route center, control passes on to the next center or to a Tower Controller. When pilots are lost or experiencing difficulty, the center provides orientation instructions and directions to the nearest emergency landing field. En Route Controllers work in teams of two or three.

Flight Service Specialists are experts on the terrain, airports, and navigational facilities in their areas. Pilots file their flight plans with Flight Service Specialists who conduct preflight briefings on weather conditions, suggested routes, altitudes, indications of turbulence, and other flight safety information. They often use direction-finding equipment to provide special assistance to search and rescue operations.

Air Traffic Controllers may use a variety of tools including: aircraft communication, guidance, and radar-based surveillance systems; aircraft flight stimulators; aircraft navigation beacons; two way radios; binoculars; and computers. A variety of expert system and flight control software are used in this occupation.

Important Tasks and Related Skills

Each task below is matched to a sample skill required to carry out the task.

View the skill definitions
TaskSkill Used in this Task
Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft within an assigned air space and on the ground at airports to minimize delays and maximize safety.Judgment and Decision Making
Monitor aircraft within a specific airspace, using radar, computer equipment, and visual references.Operation Monitoring
Issue landing and take-off authorizations and instructions.Instructing
Inform pilots about nearby planes as well as potentially hazardous conditions such as weather, speed and direction of wind, and visibility problems.Speaking
Provide flight path changes or directions to emergency landing fields for pilots traveling in bad weather or in emergency situations.Transportation
Alert airport emergency services in cases of emergency and when aircraft are experiencing difficulties.Speech Clarity
Transfer control of departing flights to traffic control centers and accept control of arriving flights.Time Sharing
Direct ground traffic, including taxiing aircraft, maintenance and baggage vehicles, and airport workers.Public Safety and Security
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET)

Working Conditions

Working as an Air Traffic Controller is an extremely stressful job. Air Traffic Controllers must be skilled at monitoring multiple aircraft simultaneously and communicating with more than one pilot at once. They must be able to concentrate for long periods of time, to work under tremendous pressure, and to make fast and accurate decisions. Any error could lead to catastrophic results.

Airport Tower or Terminal Controllers almost always work in small rooms at the top of airport towers. Airport towers, en route centers, and flight service stations are usually fully air-conditioned. Rooms in flight centers are large and dimly lit for proper viewing of the many radar screens arranged in tiers and rows.

Air Traffic Controllers usually work a standard 40-hour week, but may work some overtime. Since most control towers and centers operate around the clock, Air Traffic Controllers work rotating night and weekend shifts.

Flight Service Specialists may join the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, while the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) represents Airport Tower or Terminal Controllers and En Route Controllers.

Will This Job Fit Me?

This occupation may appeal to those who like to follow set procedures and routines. Air Traffic Controller occupations satisfy those with conventional interests. Conventional occupations involve working with data and details more than with ideas. Usually, there is a clear line of authority to follow. Those entering this field must have good communication and analytical skills. Those who are decisive, organized, and can give directions and instructions to others will be good candidates for this position.

What Wages and Benefits Can I Expect?

Air Traffic Controllers earn relatively high pay and have better job security than most workers, as long as they meet the proficiency and medical requirements of the job. Although their workloads decrease during economic downturns, they are rarely laid off.

Wages

The median wage in 2016 for Air Traffic Controllers in California is $138,079 annually, or $66.38 hourly. The median is the point at which half of the workers earn more and half earn less.

Change to Hourly Wages
Annual Wages for 2016Low
(25th percentile)
Median
(50th percentile)
High
(75th percentile)
California$90,433$138,079$162,100
Source: EDD/LMID Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2016 Wages do not reflect self-employment.
View Wages for All Areas

Benefits

Depending on length of service, Air Traffic Controllers receive 13 to 26 days of vacation and 13 days of sick leave each year, in addition to life insurance and health benefits. Controllers can also retire at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than other Federal employees. However, federal law provides exemptions for Controllers having exceptional skills and experience. Earnings and benefits for Controllers working in contract towers or flight service stations may vary.

What is the Job Outlook?

Overall, employment of Air Traffic Controllers is expected to decline slowly. However, large numbers of Air Traffic Controllers will be eligible to retire over the next decade, potentially creating many job openings. New computerized systems are automating many of the Controller’s routine tasks, which will allow Controllers to handle more traffic. In the future, Federal budget constraints may limit hiring of Air Traffic Controllers. Strong competition exists for FAA training programs as demand for training is greater than space available.

Projections of Employment

In California, the number of Air Traffic Controllers is expected to remain stable between 2012 and 2022.

In San Diego County, the number of Air Traffic Controllers is expected to grow at an average rate compared with the total for all occupations. Jobs for Air Traffic Controllers are expected to increase by 19.6 percent, or 100 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

Estimated Employment and Projected Growth
Air Traffic Controllers
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-Projected Year)
Estimated
Employment
Projected
Employment
Numeric
Change
Percent
Change
Additional Openings
Due to Net
Replacements
California
(2012-2022)
2,5002,50000.01,100
San Diego County
(2012-2022)
51061010019.6220
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Projected Growth for All Areas

Annual Job Openings

In California, an average of 110 job openings due to net replacement needs is expected per year for Air Traffic Controllers.

In San Diego County, an average of 10 new job openings per year is expected for Air Traffic Controllers, plus an additional 22 job openings due to net replacement needs, resulting in a total of 32 job openings.

Estimated Average Annual Job Openings
Air Traffic Controllers
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-
Projected Year)
Jobs From GrowthJobs Due to
Net Replacements
Total Annual
Job Openings
California
(2012-2022)
0110110
San Diego County
(2012-2022)
102232
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Data for All Areas

How Do I Qualify?

Education, Training, and Other Requirements

Applicants for Air Traffic Controller positions must pass an exam. In addition, they are required to have three years of general experience, four years of college, or a combination of experience and education. The federal General Schedule (GS) rating assigned to new Controllers is determined by their score on the qualifying test, their college academic standing, and any specialized aviation experience they may have. College graduates with civilian or military experience as Controllers, Navigators, or Pilots will have the best chance for appointment.

The FAA has established a maximum age of 30 at the time of appointment for tower and center candidates. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen. They are required to pass a rigid medical exam, pre-employment drug testing, and obtain a security clearance prior to employment. Candidates need excellent vision and hearing, as well as the ability to speak English clearly to be understood over radios and other communications equipment. Controllers must pass an annual physical, a semiannual job proficiency exam, and undergo random drug and/or alcohol testing as a condition of continuing employment.

Once appointed, new recruits receive training at the FAA Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Formalized classroom and on-the-job training continues at their assigned facility until the Controller reaches journey-level status. Journey-level achievement varies from facility to facility. Most Controllers reach journey-level in two to three years.

Early Career Planning

High school students interested in this type of work should take coursework in English, physics, mathematics, computer science, and electronics.

Continuing Education

To remain knowledgeable and keep up with new and updated aviation technology, Air Traffic Controllers have on-going FAA sponsored continuing education.

Certification

Certification by the Federal Aviation Administration is required. For more information, go to the U.S. Department of Labor's Career InfoNet Web site and scroll down to "Career Tools." Click on "Certification Finder" and follow the instructions to locate certification programs.

Where Can I Find Training?

There are two ways to search for training information:

  • Search by Field of Study to find what programs are available and what schools offer those programs. You may use keywords such as: Air Traffic Controller, Air Transportation, and Aviation.
  • Search by Training Provider to find schools by name, type of school, or location.

Contact the schools you are interested in to learn about the classes available, tuition and fees, and any prerequisite course work.

Where Would I Work?

The largest industries employing Air Traffic Controllers are as follows:

Industry TitlePercent of Total Employment for Occupation in California
Federal Government 98.2%
Source: EDD/LMID Staffing Patterns

Finding a Job

Most civilian Controllers work for the FAA; however, some work for the DOD. Candidates can search job openings and apply online through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Web site at www.usajobs.opm.gov. Job seekers should view the Air Traffic Controller Announcement, the Qualifications Information Statement for Air Traffic Control Specialist Positions, and a list of test locations.

The Western Regional Headquarters of the FAA is located in Los Angeles and is responsible for coordinating all military and civilian air traffic in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Online job opening systems include JobCentral at www.jobcentral.com and CalJOBSSM at www.caljobs.ca.gov.

To find your nearest One-Stop Career Center, go to Service Locator. View the helpful job search tips for more resources. (requires Adobe Reader).

Yellow Page Headings

You can focus your local job search by checking employers listed online or in your local telephone directory. Below are some suggested headings where you might find employers of Air Traffic Controllers.

  • Aircraft Flight Training Schools
  • Airlines
  • Airports & Airport Operation
  • Government (Federal)

Find Possible Employers

To locate a list of employers in your area, go to "Find Employers" on the Labor Market Information Web site:

  • Select one of the top industries that employ the occupation. This will give you a list of employers in that industry in your area.
  • Click on "View Filter Selections" to limit your list to specific cities or employer size.
  • Click on an employer for the street address, telephone number, size of business, Web site, etc.
  • Contact the employer for possible employment.

Where Could This Job Lead?

An Air Traffic Controller may be promoted to supervisory or management positions. The FAA has a policy of promoting from within when filling higher level Air Traffic Controller positions. Many of the FAA’s key officials began their service as Air Traffic Controllers.

Related Occupations

Below is a list of occupations related to Air Traffic Controllers with links to more information.

OccupationOccupational
Guide
Industry
Report
Occupational
Profile
Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight EngineersProfile
Airfield Operations SpecialistsProfile
Atmospheric and Space ScientistsProfile

Other Sources

These links are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by EDD.

For the Career Professional

The following codes are provided to assist counselors, job placement workers, or other career professionals.

SystemCode
SOC - Standard Occupational Classification53-2021
O*NET - Occupational Information Network
   Air Traffic Controllers53-2021.00
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)ECR
CIP - Classification of Instructional Programs
   Air Traffic Controller 490105
TOP - Taxonomy of Programs (California Community Colleges)
   Air Traffic Control302030