Air marshal dancing on a tarmac

If you think this is an air traffic controller, you're not alone.

However, this is an air marshal.

So what do air traffic controllers do?

They direct planes over radio using radar or from a lookout tower.

Stressed out air traffic controllers in front of a radar screen

What Do They Do?

  • Use radar or visual contact to keep track of planes.

    They must know where every plane they are responsible for is going.

  • Use radio communications to tell planes where to go.

    Planes cannot move without a controller directing them.

  • Follow strict procedures on how far planes can be from each other in the sky.

    There are strict rules which change depending on the size of the plane and the type of airspace. A controller needs to know all these rules.

  • Provide information to pilots.

    Weather information, runway conditions, and turbulence reports are the sort of information a pilot might ask a controller.

Planes flying in the sky

Two Types Of Air Traffic Controllers

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

A radar screen IFR controllers use radar and radio to tell pilots what to do.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR)

Airplane on a tarmac in front of a lookout tower Photo by Yiyang on Unsplash

VFR controllers direct traffic from tall towers using visual contact, radio, and radar.

Choosing A Stream

A woman's face

Sandy is interested in becoming an air traffic controller.

Her mother is a pilot. When Sandy was young, her mother would teach her to recognize the types of planes in the sky.

Even though Sandy loved planes, she wasn't very good at telling the difference between models. She does like puzzles though, and is a quick thinker, with great communication skills.


Which stream would be best suited for Sandy?

Choose This Career If:

  • You like following procedures.

    You must play within the rules of the game.

  • You enjoy fast moving puzzles.

    Every situation requires strategic thinking to figure out how you'll get all the planes where they need to go.

  • You can communicate clearly.

    You need to tell pilots what to do all the time.

  • You know when to change your plans.

    Not all plans are perfect, but a controller needs to know when their plan isn't working and to quickly adapt.

Puzzle Pieces


You are a great speaker, but struggle with listening. Often, you have to rewind podcasts because you forgot what was said earlier. Will this be a problem in this career?

Find A Different Career If:

  • You don't like having responsibility over people's lives.

    Each plane may look like a dot on your radar, but they are full of people.

  • You take a lot of time to think about plans.

    Creating and implementing plans quickly is part of the job.

  • You don't like multi-tasking.

    A controller will be juggling a lot at the same time.

  • You don't like sitting at a desk all day.

    While it's not a traditional office desk, you will sit in front of a screen at your station for long stretches.

Spongebob multitasking


You love chess. Before you move a piece, you like to visualize the impacts of the move to stay a few moves ahead. Is this going to help you?

Does It Pay The Bills?

Flaticon Icon Average Salary in Canada:

$100,000 CAD

Flaticon Icon Average Salary in the United States:

$120,000 USD

How Do I Become One?

In Canada:

Nav Canada is the only organization that staffs air traffic controllers. You can only apply through them. You don't need any previous experience or education.

In the United States:

You'll need to apply through the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and attend their training program. You'll need a bachelor's degree or work experience.

For both:

  • Pass a medical examination and security clearance

  • Be willing to relocate to a training facility

Leo DiCaprio holding up a glass, saying,

Take Action

An air traffic controller tower If this job sounds like it's for you, head to the appropriate agency and start the application process!


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