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The lives of those in the air heavily depend on Airmen on the ground. Responsible for managing the flow of aircraft through all aspects of their flight, Air Traffic Control specialists ensure the safety and efficiency of air traffic on the ground and in the air. Providing specialized skills, these highly trained professionals make quick decisions while monitoring many variables to keep bases, airspace and Airmen all over the world safe.



Every minute, every hour, every day, there are men and women working to ensure the safety and efficiency of our national airspace system.

This group of more than 24,000 specialists provide a vital public service to guide pilots, their planes, and 2.7 million daily passengers from taxi to takeoff, through the air and back safely on the ground.

Because of the serious nature of this work and zero margin for error, the training regimen and proficiencies needed to become and air traffic control specialist, are demanding. Initial selection does not guarantee placement into federal civilian service. Entry-level applicants must complete required training courses at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and gain on-the-job experience before becoming certified professional controllers.


Air traffic controllers typically do the following:

  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air
  • Control all ground traffic at airport runways and taxiways
  • Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots
  • Transfer control of departing flights to other traffic control centers and accept control of arriving flights
  • Inform pilots about weather, runway closures, and other critical information
  • Alert airport response staff in the event of an aircraft emergency


The following are examples of types of air traffic controllers:
  • Tower controllers direct the movement of vehicles, including aircraft, on runways and taxiways. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of aircraft and other traffic on the runways and in other parts of the airport. Most work from control towers, observing the traffic they control. Tower controllers manage traffic from the airport to a radius of 3 to 30 miles out.
  • Approach and departure controllers ensure that aircraft traveling within an airport’s airspace maintain minimum separation for safety. They give clearances to enter controlled airspace and hand off control of aircraft to en route controllers. Approach and departure controllers use radar equipment to monitor flight paths and work in buildings known as Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs). They also inform pilots about weather conditions and other critical notices. Terminal approach controllers assist the aircraft until it reaches the edge of the facility’s airspace, usually about 20 to 50 miles from the airport and up to about 17,000 feet in the air.
  • En route controllers monitor aircraft once they leave an airport’s airspace. They work at air route traffic control centers located throughout the country, which typically are not located at airports. Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and air traffic in the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches and flies through a center’s airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route. They may adjust the flight path of aircraft to avoid collisions and for safety in general. Route controllers direct the aircraft for the bulk of the flight before handing to terminal approach controllers.

In addition to these positions, there are several associated careers available, including Airway Transportation Systems Specialist. This is a position for people interested in being an electronics technician maintaining equipment like: Lighted Navigational Aids, Airport Surveillance Radar, and Terminal Doppler Weather Radar.


When joining the Air Force, and after completing BMT, Airmen receive 72 days of technical training at Keesler AFB in Mississippi. This training is then followed by hands-on experience at an air force base while you earn a college degree in Air Traffic Operations and Management.

As a civilian, candidates typically need a bachelor’s degree from the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program. Candidates must also be a U.S. citizen, pass medical and personal background checks, and successfully complete courses offered by the FAA Academy.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for air traffic control specialists was about $123,000 in 2019, which ranged from $68,000 to $176,000.

As of May 2019, there were 410 specialists in Arizona and 350 in New Mexico. The number of positions available depends on the number of aircraft flights in an area and whether the area is home to an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). California, by comparison, had 2,210 specialists.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is within the Albuquerque area control center. This means that planes flying in the general area are controlled by the Albuquerque ARTCC and then passed on to the Sky Harbor Air Traffic Control Tower (Phoenix TRACON). So although Albuquerque has a much smaller population than Phoenix, the FAA presence in Albuquerque is large.

Click here to listen to live audio feed from the Sky Harbor tower.