Air Traffic Controller

The Job and What's Involved

Air traffic controllers issue instructions, advice and information to pilots by radio, in a specific section of airspace, to keep air traffic flying safely, efficiently and quickly. They handle more than two million flights each year, carrying over 220 million passengers.

Although aircraft fly to set schedules, they do not fly exactly the same route each day. Air traffic controllers need to be prepared to deal with any situation, for example:

  • Changing flight plans.
  • Bad weather conditions.
  • Unexpected events, such as security alerts.
  • Unscheduled traffic entering the airspace.

Landing and taking off constitute a small part of an aircraft's flight. There are three main areas of responsibility for air traffic controllers:

1. Area control
2. Approach control
3. Aerodrome control

Area controllers are based at control centres and oversee the en-route stage of a flight. They might use radar and the latest computer technology to track an aircraft's exact position, to keep traffic separated in flight and to give pilots the most efficient route to their destination.

Approach controllers take over contact with a pilot when the aircraft is within 15 to 20 miles of the airport, giving initial clearance to approach the airport, guiding and sequencing aircraft into the most efficient order for landing.

Aerodrome controllers are the final link in the chain. Working at the top of an airport control tower, they take over when the aircraft is five miles away. They guide pilots in for a safe landing.

At very busy airports, aerodrome controllers may be split into air control and ground control - ground control guide the aircraft to its parking stand once it has landed. They also make sure the departing aircraft get from the stands to the runways, and take off safely.

The majority of air traffic controllers (80 per cent) work in area control centres.

Air traffic controllers communicate with their counterparts in foreign air traffic control centres, for example those in Europe and the North Atlantic. Much of an air traffic controller's working time is spent using radars, radio equipment, and computers for communicating and collecting data.

A typical working week may be between 37 and 40 hours. Airports operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so a controller should be prepared to work nights, weekends and public holidays.

Air traffic controllers work in shifts, a mixture of days, nights and afternoons. Part-time work is possible. When working a shift, rest periods of half an hour are usually taken after each one and a half hours' duty.

Air traffic controllers work at flight control centres and in airport traffic control towers. These are normally busy areas, but are also well ventilated with good lighting.

Salaries for trainee air traffic controllers while at college, may be around £10,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 2,500 air traffic controllers in the UK, and opportunities are increasing. The continued popularity of air travel and the availability of low cost carriers means an increasing number of flights each year, with a record-breaking 2,386,105 flights recorded back in 2006!

The majority of air traffic controllers (around 80 per cent) are employed by National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which provides air traffic control services to aircraft flying in UK airspace, and over the eastern part of the North Atlantic. However, despite growth, competition for training places is intense and selection is rigorous.

NATS provides en-route air traffic management from its centres at Swanwick in Hampshire, West Drayton in Middlesex, Manchester, and Prestwick in Ayrshire. However, NATS has plans to provide en-route air traffic management from only Swanwick and Prestwick in the future. NATS also provides airport air traffic control services at 15 of the UK's major airports, including Aberdeen, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

Some air traffic controllers work for privately-owned air traffic control companies, and some for the Royal Air Force.

NATS recruits trainees on its website,, through an online application, and also advertises in national newspapers. Air Traffic Management and Flight International are also publications where vacancies may be found.

Education and Training

NATS recruits candidates must pass a number of selection stages. They are invited to a selection day, and have the chance to talk to an experienced air traffic controller. Various tests take place to measure personality, motivation and skills (such as the ability to check information quickly and accurately), spatial visualisation, mental arithmetic and short-term memory. Successful candidates move to the final interview stage for further tests.

Before a job offer is made, all candidates must obtain medical and security clearance.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Entry requirements vary according to the employer.

For NATS, candidates should have two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including maths and English, or equivalent qualifications such as BTEC national awards, certificates or diplomas.

To work directly for airport operators, the requirements vary. Some employers only recruit fully trained, experienced air traffic controllers. Others take trainees with at least five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English and maths, or equivalent qualifications.

Applicants wishing to become air traffic controllers must also:

  • Be at least 18 years of age before they start training.
  • Have normal colour vision and good eyesight (corrected vision within certain limits).
  • Have full hearing.

Initial training takes place at the College of Air Traffic Control, near Bournemouth International Airport, and usually lasts between 6 and 15 months, depending on the selected area of work. During this time trainees are paid an allowance.

The college has four high-tech computer simulators that can recreate real air traffic situations for practical training. Qualified instructors, who have all been controllers themselves, teach in the classroom and in practical exercises.

Once they have graduated from the college, trainees go to an operational unit, such as Swanwick, for validation training. They work alongside an experienced air traffic controller to gain practical training and a qualification. It takes three to four years to become fully qualified.

Once in employment, air traffic controllers have a thorough medical examination every two years until they are 40, and then every year after that.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An air traffic controller needs to:

  • Work well under pressure.
  • Have a calm and efficient manner.
  • React intuitively and quickly to new and unexpected situations.
  • Be able to plan ahead.
  • Have good communication skills, and be able to speak clearly, precisely and authoritatively to pilots.
  • Be able to check and interpret complicated data quickly and accurately.
  • Adapt well to advances in technology.
  • Understand geometry and be excellent at mental arithmetic.
  • Have good spatial awareness and vision.
  • Have a good memory.
  • Be flexible and able to adapt to any changes such as a shift change or a technological fault.
  • Work well in a team.
  • Have a high standard of health and fitness.

Your Long Term Prospects

With several years' experience, it may be possible to oversee air traffic controllers as an operational watch supervisor or eventually become a unit manager.

Air traffic controllers can also apply to become trainers of new controllers.

Get Further Information

GoSkills, Concorde House, Trinity Park, Solihull, West Midlands B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520

National Air Traffic Services Ltd (NATS), Corporate and Technical Centre,
4000 Parkway, Whiteley, Fareham, Hampshire PO15 7FL
Tel: 01489 616001

The Royal Aeronautical Society, 4 Hamilton Place, London W1J 7BQ
Tel: 020 7670 4300

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