College Controller Grads To Skip FAA ATC Academy


The FAA is allowing graduates of college and university air traffic control programs to skip training at its own ATC academy in Oklahoma City and go directly to on-the-job training at ATC facilities. The measure was among a series of immediate actions announced by the agency to boost ATC recruitment and increase staffing levels at facilities across the country. A shortage of controllers has been a common theme in various studies, reports and seminars on a spate of runway incursions and losses of separation in the past year. Skipping the academy for college ATC grads should increase capacity at the academy for other prospective controllers.

Previously, graduates from accredited Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programs had to go to the Oklahoma academy for at least seven weeks of the 12-week program there to get them ready for a facility. Those with degrees will now go straight to an operational ATC unit where they’ll begin the one- to three-year on-the-job training segment of their career. “The FAA will work with AT-CTI programs to ensure that graduates from these programs have the necessary skills to begin on-the-job training at a facility,” the agency said. “These graduates still must pass the Air Traffic Skills Assessment (ATSA) exam and meet medical and security requirements.” After finishing their supervised training, they become certified controllers. We’ve asked the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for comment on the move but didn’t hear back in time for our deadline.

AT-CTI trainees make up a significant number of applicants for ATC jobs so bypassing the academy for them should free up seats in the full 12-week program that so-called “off-the-street” trainees must undergo. The FAA will accept applicants who don’t go the university route provided they have work experience and/or education that make them suitable candidates. All candidates have to pass rigorous screening before being accepted for training by the FAA.

The agency said in its Friday statement it is also expanding the ATC academy and will ensure that every seat is filled. It will offer year-round acceptance of already-trained military and private-sector controllers and will have a total of four advanced training facilities in operation around the country by next spring. It also recently bought ATC simulators and will have them in 95 facilities by the end of 2025. The agency also intends to keep working on its safety culture with internal reporting structures and the continuation of safety meetings at ATC facilities.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Just because you have a degree doesn’t make you a qualified apprentice controller. This is a bad choice!

    The CTI program is a failure for students paying for a degree. The schools have a financial interest in providing graduates for the system. To really be an effective program, a 90% score or better would need to placed to get to the FAA without the progression to the academy.

    • I really know nothing about the course, but it seems to me they likely need a course of some kind. Sure, the 12 week course might have some redundancy for some students, but there’s bound to be things that aren’t.

      The reality is no one at the FAA likely wants to do the hard work and take responsibility for creating a new, abbreviated course.

  2. I once had an issue with an apprentice controller years ago. He got overwhelmed between Chicago, our airport, and the coyotes on our runways. Myself and another pilot got caught up in the chaos.

    Luckily no one got hurt and no paint or metal was exchanged, but it could have gotten quite ugly. Nothing like on the job training…

  3. Just as medical school grads get on the job training at residency training programs, in the interest of consistency and insurance of competence, grade should be required to spend some time at the ATC training facility.

    • Exactly what the FAA proposed. Graduates of the 4-year CTI program will spend the next 1-3 years in training at a real FAA ATC facility before being qualified as controllers — much as new MD’s spend years as a interns and residents in a real hospital before being licensed.

  4. Why is there not an intern program part of the degree program? You know, like taking ground school while getting a private certificate?

    • You really should look into what goes on during the four years of training in the CTI program, not to mention the 1-3 years of interning at an FAA ATC facility. It adds up to 5-y years of training before being fully qualified. You think that’s not enough? They’ve been doing it for decades with off-the-street hires who spend only 5 MONTHS in the schoolhouse before going to a real facility.

      • 4 years plus 1-3 interning? Heck yea that’s way too much for someone working tower or ground at a GA class D airport! That’s nuts.

    • What would you learn as an intern?

      OJT is how a vast majority of this job is learned. And AFTER training at the academy, it still takes 1 to 7 years to become a CPC at an up/down facility. The best facilities and controllers, no one knows about. And yes, a class D airport can take several years to certify at.

  5. As a busy TRACON controller/supervisor hired 6 months after the PATCO strike and retired after 36 years, I have strong feelings on this subject. FAA hiring and training has been a demonstrated failure for the past 20 years. Success in this occupation is all about mental acuity and an ability to think critically and make decisions in 4 dimensions (including time). I’ll never believe that these skills can be taught in an academic setting to people without an innate ability. Rigorous testing and screening, long before enrollment in any college curriculum or training program is the only answer, but FAA management continues to believe that anyone can succeed with education. That’s simply not the case and the revolving door of failed trainees tells the tale. Shotgunning trainees to facilities will only clog the training pipeline and will lead to further disaster.

    • Absolutely 100% correct. We probably went through OKC at the same time. The object then was to wash out the incompetent so that only those with the needed skills could go on to a facility for OJT and even then nothing was guaranteed. Then the agency went the “train to succeed” route- total disaster. And now here we are.

      • Pressure applied and evaluated to observe the ability to over come. Real techniques and application in a high volume environment in a simulation.

    • Retired technician here. Started just before PATCO strike. Knew lots of controllers. Spent many weeks in OKC doing my training. Those guys worked their butts off and many washed out. You have to have an aptitude for it and no amount of college is going to get that for you.

    • As a physician, I think my assessment of the new FAA proposal comes close to yours. There is some merit to say that students that are graduates of their university controller program are similar to the situation of student physicians as some have suggested. There certainly is similarity but……The first two years of medical school are academics. The last two years are spent in hospitals working alongside residents. These 24 months of training involve taking call alongside the residents with all of the attendant loss of sleep, loss of time with family, etc. The students today have much diminished hours in comparison to the days of oldsters like myself (40 years as a practicing physician). I had one stretch, for example, as an intern in general surgery of working 40 hours straight with no opportunity to nap, much less sleep. Myself and the other intern worked up the approximate 30 new patients set for surgery the next morning. It took from 6am Sunday am until 5am Monday to get that done as we were in a facility where we did everything from drawing the patient’s blood, running samples to the lab, doing the patient’s xray (and reading it in radiology when it was processed), doing our own EKG’s as well as reviewing as many of sometimes 12-16 inch-high stacks of prior charts. Being the on-call interns, we also participated in or ran all of the code resuscitations on patients in the hospital. At 5am, we headed down to the surgical ICU and made rounds on all of the patients in that unit. We likely also spent time during the middle of the night in the unit evaluating or treating some of the sickest of those patients. We also saw every in-house patient and wrote a note in the chart.
      At 7am we had breakfast and then headed to the operating rooms at 7:30am. After finishing up the last case by 5-6pm, we ate supper and started making postop visits on the surgical patients from that day. I remember that after rounding on all the fresh postop patients, rounding on the SICU patients again and admitting more patients, we finally went home at 10pm Monday night. We had to be back in the morning by 7am at the latest, sometimes earlier depending on the service. Students participate in that learning process. The only time students are not in a hospital setting is when they have a small number of months with family practice, internal medicine, peds and other physicians in private practice. The students are given definite tasks and responsibilities although their intern or resident is/are the ones ultimately responsible to the attending physician. By the time you start your internship, you have already spent two full years of doing clinical work, facing real-life emergencies, critical patients, dying patients, etc. I recognize that the shortage of controllers necessitates some measures to increase the supply but I wonder if the university to controlling facility will be successful. Academics are important but usually only translate so much in the real world, whether that be medicine or, I would think, controlling.

      • Off-topic, but… the system you describe here is now being better understood by many to have produced all kinds of negative outcomes for your profession and those under its care. Trials by fire are useful but I don’t want to be under the care (medical or ATC) of an individual who hasn’t slept recently.

  6. To ignore the cultural aspect of training and allow people whose checkbooks got them into a school that has a vested interest in keeping them as students, what could possibly go wrong?? We fly around Whidbey NAS which is a training facility and there are reports all the time of instructors taking over the mic from a controller.

  7. Yo! Unahted 742 ahs cleisd ta da Chahcago o easys aahrport vaha da dallas three departure. What it is, Mama! Peep this shit! clahmb a’ maahntaahn 3000 feet. Turn rahght headahng 320 contact departure on 124.6 megahertz

    Or maybe just promote them to management…make them all GM-15’s

  8. FAA should begin by hiring ONLY applicants who scored %100 on the Air Traffic Skills Assessment Test (AT-SAT). Nothing less will work. Are you listening FAA?

  9. As a flight instructor who has been on the receiving end of many years worth of ATC directives, I think simply placing someone into real-time ATC training without an evaluation of their inherent abilities is a very poor strategy and doomed to failure. Unfortunately, the program failure will have seriously adverse results for pilots, not for those safely in a dark room somewhere…

  10. “The Screen”, which is what the FAA ATC Academy was called post strike and before “Train to Succeed” (which was a total failure) the Academy screen was a brutal but effective way to weed out those who:

    1. Did not work well under pressure,

    2. Who could not learn and apply rules quickly, and

    3. DId not possess the spatial skills to begin learning to become a controller.

    The CTI program is fine for those wishing to have a degree, but that program alone does not prepare you to become a controller.

  11. If the FAA and OPM (which pays out retirement income to Air Traffic Controllers) would recover the approximately $30 million in OVERPAYMENTS made during the last 23 years to 99% of Air Traffic Controllers (14,675 out of 14,840) who gained in the 3-year distribution of $200 million in pay raises and pay out less than $7 million of that recovered money to the other 1% (165), who were illegally deprived of the correct pay raises in ALL THREE YEARS of the distribution as a RESULT of DELAYING our moves to higher-level FAA facilities by 14 months because of the 14-month delay in contracting out our Level One control towers at small airports (finally replaced by contract controllers at our Level One towers), causing the money that should have gone to the 165 of us to be INSTEAD used to INCREASE the third-year of the distribution raise of the other 14,675 controllers, causing them to be ILLEGALLY OVERPAID, with the overpayments beginning in October, 2000, and only ending upon retirement (if not for retirements since October, 2000 (approximately 13,400), the overpayments would have totaled approximately $36 MILLION), the FAA would GAIN approximately $23 million during the next one year, which deductions from the pay and/or retirement income of the 14,675 would have a negligible impact to them on a per-paycheck or per-month basis, the FAA would have enough money to hire an additional 300 Air Traffic Controllers ($23 million). When one of my coworkers saw the illegal FAA/Union agreement that cheated the 165 of us, he threw it down and said, “We are losing credit for our pay steps, they are trying to get us to quit”. He complained to the Regional Union rep, who said, “I see what you are saying, we should be able to get you paid the same as if you hadn’t been delayed, but you know that if you get those raises other controllers won’t get as much, because it has to come out of the $200 million”. Two weeks later he called and said he brought it up at a Union meeting and was told to “shut up about it”.

  12. By the way, there is no statute of limitation for recovery of overpayments made to Federal employees (5514, Title 5, U.S. Code), which has been confirmed by three official sources, and on January 10, 2013, President Obama signed into law the “Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act of 2012” (IPERIA), making it MANDATORY to recover overpayments made to Federal employees and also to correct “underpayments” (the definition of “Improper Payments” in that law includes “underpayments”), as confirmed by Mark Reger at the Office of Federal Financial Management (OFFM) at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House about 5 years ago. Therefore, the FAA needs to “wake up” and RE-DETERMINE the distribution of $200 million in pay raises among Air Traffic Controllers by paying us who were DELAYED in moving to higher-level FAA facilities by 14 months AS IF we moved AS SCHEDULED to the higher-level facilities, which, it has been discovered by Freedom of Information Act request and by reading the calculations of the Rule 35 “conversion rule” to change Air Traffic Controllers into a new pay system and determine the correct-percentage raises in ALL THREE YEARS of the distribution, which “Rule 35” has NEVER been applied to the 165 delayed controllers, would give us HIGHER-PERCENTAGE raises to base pay in ALL THREE YEARS of the distribution, and would have PREVENTED the illegal overpayments from being made to the other 14,675 controllers. The 14,675 other controllers were illegally overpaid by, on average, $3.50 per paycheck after the distribution was complete, enough to buy 3 or 4 candy bars every two weeks, so the 165 of us could be cheated out of an average of $8,093 per YEAR, a few as high as $17,000 per YEAR, after the distribution was complete, then progressively worse after that as subsequent pay raises were a percentage of an already-erroneously-established pay level. If there had been no retirements since October, 2000, the overpayments would have increased to all 14,675 overpaid controllers until today, with overpayments totaling approximately $36 MILLION. Any who are still working are now being illegally overpaid by, on average, $7.20 per paycheck, because subsequent promotion raises and cost-of-living increases were a percentage of an already-erroneously-ELEVATED pay level.

  13. I was hired in 1969, fired in 1981, rehired in 1997 and retired in 2005. The last time the controller workforce was “stable” was August of 1981. Ever since the PATCO strike, all sorts of BS strategies have been implemented in an effort to achieve what we had prior to that time. Note that 1969 is plus/minus 20 years after the post war (WW II) hiring binge. When I went to the Academy during that second hiring binge the approach was to cut 25% and unfortunately we lost some viable candidates. The Civil Service test for ATC of that era was actually pretty good at identifying good applicants. Charles D. is partially correct

  14. As I was saying…. Charles D. is partially correct. ATC is not teachable. It is an aptitude, at least at the skill levels required at Level V Towers and Terminals and most ARTCC’s. At IAH, which was an extremely complex up/down facility at the time, we had guy with a law degree fail and a milkman, Snuffy Smith, succeed. Systemwide, however, the present problem lies in the failure of the FAA to promote exceptional talent. In 1969 nobody was hired into high density Towers or TRACONS. I was hired into LIT (Little Rock) and, after completing the training program there, bid on and was transferred to IAH (Houston now Bush). After 5 years there I bid on and was transferred to BAY TRACON (SFO/OAK/SJC etc). This was known as career progression and, at the time, the move was paid for by the FAA. If a really good controller with Level V potential wants to transfer now, he or she has to assume ALL EXPENSES. Even worse, supervisors are almost always chosen from in-house because the FAA won’t pay someone to transfer. And I can tell you from previous history that a person with a breadth of experience which includes other facilities brings more to the table than somebody who was born and raised there.

    • Have worked with ERAU CTI and several other school graduates. Have had them wash out at the same or worse rate than off the street hires. So, no, ERAU isnt a glorified holy grail of a school.

      • One of the huge problems was the way the FAA hired CTI graduates — sometimes it was more than a year after graduation. Basically, that meant that all of their Tower and Radar simulation training was wasted. I’m pretty sure that there would have been a much higher success rate if the accession process wasn’t so screwed up.

  15. This is a tempest in a teapot. An AI will be constructed to address this four-dimensional multi-body problem, probably before I hang up my headset. Getting it approved for testing by an ossified bureaucracy up against PATCO, is another matter.

    How do you think we’ll get to the day depicted in all those sci-fi movies with zillions of flying vehicles in the cities of the future? Two lumps of wet-ware in synchronous verbal communication over an overtaxed radio spectrum?

  16. The AT-CTI program was initiated as a cost saving effort to
    defer some of the basic ATCS educational elements to participating colleges and
    universities. Beginning in 1989, the FAA entered into partnerships with selected,
    post-secondary educational institutions to conduct some portion of ATCS
    technical training as a demonstration program. The program grew from an
    original five institutions to a total of 36 participating colleges and universities by
    2012. There are currently 30 active AT-CTI participating colleges and
    universities. In 2016, as required by a law passed by Congress, FAA initiated a pool process in which applicants were grouped into one of two hiring pools based on applicant background. Pool 1 was comprised of qualified veterans and AT-CTI graduates.
    applicants were grouped into one of two hiring pools based on applicant background.
    Pool 2 was comprised of all other applicants.
    Hiring in equal proportion from both pools was also specified. In 2017 FAA began to
    re-establish relationships with the AT-CTI schools under Congressional mandate.

  17. Ummm…. Whoever made this decision has never audited a collegiate ATCTI program. They are not a replacement for the academy. Not even close. I was an associate dean at an a university in FL with an ATCTI program for 8 years and I can say with absolute certainty that this is not a good idea…..

  18. Oh it’s fine, seriously.

    But FAA…please…PRETTY PLEASE…ONLY send them to level 4, 5 and 6 facilities; these are the slower VFR towers. Once they certify at one of those, then absolutely come on down to the busier up/downs..and then (maybe) a busy consolidated TRACON.

    (Please none of this TRASH where they send minimal, if any, experience to level 10s, 11s and 12s. ABSOLUTE GARBAGE.)

    • I agree with johnkpardo but ONLY if the FAA has gone back to paying the cost of a move. A controller from a dink tower can’t afford a move today.

  19. As an AT-CTI grad about 13 years ago, I reflect back to my readiness then and can say that I would certainly not want to be on board any aircraft controlled by me on OJT without my having gone through the OKC experience first.

    I enjoyed the CTI program and did very well in it, but in no way do I feel it readied me for OJT at an active facility. In my experience, CTI was like “intro to ATC” bundled with unrelated class requirements just to get the university its paycheck.

    I really appreciated the notion that selected CTI candidates had to go to OKC for “real” training (and more-so for filtering-out). I understand the wash-out rate at OKC was rather high then, and I hope it still is. I agree the above comment saying that (paraphrasing) this just moves the burden of washing-out those with the degree but not the aptitude from OKC to active facilities. I don’t like the risks involved with that.

  20. If the FAA is struggling to recruit quality candidates, maybe they need to rethink their placement and promotions process.

    FAA is really limiting its applicant pool (and increasing the dissatisfaction and churn) if they won’t give recruits any ability to apply to a rough geographical area they will be placed. Who is willing to go through years of training without having any control or visibility into where they will end up? You could still place people within that area based on their skill and then let them work their way up, and build a life and community from the start.

    Also, why do they require every single controller to do a variety of shifts including regardless of their experience? That really messes with your sleep schedule and can’t be safe. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let them bid on shifts based on seniority and work their way up to better times?