If you would like a challenging job that demands excellent concentration working as an air traffic controller could suit you
As an air traffic controller you would manage aircraft through all aspects of their flight. You would take responsibility for the aircraft's safety and ensure that it lands and takes off on time.
You would use highly sophisticated radar and radio communication equipment to communicate advice, information and instructions to pilots.
Air traffic controllers are well known for working in control towers at airports, but the majority actually work in area control centres. They are responsible for the en-route stage of the aircraft, using radar to track its exact position, keeping it safe in the airspace and providing the most efficient route.
Approach controllers deal with instrument landing systems, which allow some planes to make automatic landings, and ensure that planes are placed in holding patterns when airports are busy. They take over from the area controllers as the aircraft is approaching the airport. They give initial clearance for the aircraft to approach the airport and put all approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing.
At the last stage, aerodrome controllers take over. They are the ones who are at the top of the control towers and they guide the pilots in to make a safe landing. The towers enable them to have good all-round viewing of the aerodrome. They ensure that the aircraft gets to its parking stand safely and that those leaving the stands reach the runway safely. In some busy airports, the aerodrome controllers are divided into air control and ground control.
In addition to carrying out the same take-off and landing procedures as civilian air traffic controllers, air traffic controllers in the RAF also make sure that air bases are maintained and prepared for emergencies. They also communicate with civilian air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace.
Tasks may vary depending on whether you work as an area, approach or aerodrome controller, but they include:
Duties specific for approach and aerodrome controllers include:
Pay at private air traffic control companies may differ slightly to that offered by NATS.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Air traffic controllers usually work between 37 to 40 hours a week, but this will be spread out over days, nights, weekends and public holidays.
Air traffic control has to be manned 24 hours a day and so shift work is used to ensure there is always cover.
A degree or HND is not a necessary requirement for entry into the role of air traffic controller. Due to the nature of the role, however, a degree that provides a high level of numeracy or technical knowledge may be beneficial.
NATS offers three structured development programmes for:
Trainers and employers of air traffic controllers look for aptitude and this is often viewed as being more important than qualifications.
However, it is required that candidates have at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and Maths. They must also be over the age of 18 when applying.
The majority of candidates train through the NATS, which has its own set of entry requirements. According to NATS, you will need to show:
Candidates must also meet certain medical requirements, which include passing a European Class 3 medical certificate. A summary of the eligibility criteria for medical conditions can be found at NATS Careers.
It is possible that candidates may pass the Class 3 medical but still do not meet all of the requirements of NATS. In this instance, it may be possible to complete training with another air traffic services provider and then apply for air traffic controller jobs after that. As well as the above criteria, you will need to show:
Pre-entry experience is not required as full training is given for the role. However, a background in office-based work, customer service or communication-based roles may be an advantage.
National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is the main employer of air traffic controllers. NATS is a public-private partnership between:
NATS is the sole employer of area controllers who work on 'en-route' services. They work in area control centres based in Swanwick and Prestwick.
NATS also employs approach and aerodrome controllers at airports in the UK. They have to tender for the contracts with the airport operator and currently provide services for around 15 of the major airports in the UK, plus one in Gibraltar.
Some airports, in particular the regional ones, employ controllers directly or use privately owned air traffic control service companies such as Safeskys Ltd.
The application and selection process for NATS is a rigorous one consisting of online and paper tests, assessment days, group exercises and an interview. The selection processes with other training providers may vary slightly but will usually be along the same lines and test similar competencies.
NATS have developed a series of mini-games on their website, testing cognitive skills such as shape tracking, sequential memory and reactivity. They measure how you approach problems, handle pressure and adapt to changing situations and may help you decide whether it's a suitable career for you.
Look for job vacancies at:
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
Training to become a fully qualified air traffic controller can take around three years. The actual structure of the training is likely to vary depending on the provider.
Training with private course providers has to be paid for but you can usually choose the area you wish to specialise in, e.g. area control, aerodrome, etc.
If you train with the NATS, you will receive a basic wage as the training stages are part of your employment. You may be placed in any location in the UK once your training is complete, and the area you specialise in is usually determined by business needs.
The basic training with NATS usually takes around two months to complete. This is followed by training in the specialised areas. Area control courses take around nine months, approach courses take at least eight months and aerodrome courses take around five months. These are minimum course lengths and some candidates may take longer to finish the training.
Upon completion of this stage, you are placed in available positions and continue with training to work towards validation. The time this takes varies depending on the individual and the unit they are placed in.
You are assessed throughout your training through the use of practical exercises, exams and oral tests.
Those from other course providers are able to apply for trainee roles with other air services operators, where they will continue with their training.
Once qualified, all air traffic controllers are required to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. This means you will continue to go on training courses or you will receive in-house training throughout your career. Useful news updates are available from the:
It is possible for air traffic controllers to move to larger airports with experience. There may also be the opportunity to progress to manager level.
Approximately 80% of the operational controllers employed by the NATS stay in operational roles throughout their careers.
There may be opportunities for you to become a group supervisor or manager of a watch or unit. In these positions you would be managing the work of other controllers.
It may also be possible to move into training roles, working in a college or assessment unit training and assessing new recruits, or being a mentor to a new recruit on the job.
There is limited progression between the specific disciplines of air traffic control.
It is unlikely that someone trained as an aerodrome controller would move to a role as an area controller (or vice versa) as the training undertaken is specific to the exact role and is very expensive. Controllers, therefore, typically stay in the discipline in which they were first trained.
There is the possibility to work in air traffic control within other countries in the European Union. English is the international language used in air traffic control but it may be helpful to have knowledge of the language spoken in the country in which you wish to work.
For further information about current initiatives aimed at improving the safety of air navigation, see EUROCONTROL: European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation.