Air traffic controllers manage aircraft through all aspects of their flight with the priority of safety, followed by other aspects such as ensuring arrivals and departures are on time.
They use highly sophisticated radar and radio communication equipment to communicate advice, information and instructions to pilots.
Types of air traffic controller
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 the 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. For further information, see Royal Air Force Careers.
Tasks may vary depending on whether you work as an area, approach or aerodrome controller, but they include:
- keeping radio and/or radar contact with aircraft;
- directing the movement of aircraft en route or at an airport;
- instructing aircraft to climb or descend and allocating final cruising level;
- providing information to aircraft about weather conditions;
- making sure that minimum distances are maintained between planes;
- handling unexpected events, emergencies and unscheduled traffic.
Duties specific for approach and aerodrome controllers include:
- controlling movements onto and off runways;
- handling the ground movement of planes around the terminals;
- handling the ground movement of vehicles around the airport.
- The starting salary is £11,967.36 during the first year of college training in Whiteley, Fareham, with the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). There is also a benefits package including a pension scheme, voluntary benefits and family-friendly policies. Students also get an additional £60 per week towards accommodation and have the chance of claiming a further £1,000 on completion of their training, subject to certain criteria.
- After completion of the college training phase, salaries rise to £17,066 to £20,479 depending on the posting.
- When training has been fully completed, expected salaries range from £32,522 to £36, 247, depending on location.
- Salaries rise again typically after validation and after the candidate's third joining anniversary. Salaries will then range from £46,461 to £51,781, plus shift pay of £5,543.
- Senior controllers with substantial experience can potentially earn over £100,000 (inclusive of shift pay) at the larger centres of Swanwick and Heathrow.
- 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.
What to expect
- Air traffic controllers usually work either in area control centres or in airport control towers. They are typically required to stay at their desk or station for two hours before having a break. The busy work and amount of concentration required can lead to tiredness and a feeling of pressure. The office environment is normally made comfortable so it aids the controllers in their critical work.
- Jobs are available at the NATS control centres located in Swanwick and Prestwick. There are also opportunities in the airports across the UK in the control towers. Some are managed by NATS while others are run by private companies or the airport itself.
- Employees of NATS may be required to move to different locations depending on the company needs and this is often written into contracts.
- Self-employment/freelance work is virtually impossible.
- Air traffic controllers are subject to the Rail and Transport Safety Act (as are train drivers and air pilots). This act sets strict limits on blood-alcohol levels (well below the drink/drive levels) and drugs are forbidden. Random testing can take place.
- Overseas work or travel is uncommon but it is possible to move with overseas employers, notably in North America and the Middle East.
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:
- college leavers who have studied at BTEC ND/HNC/HND level;
- university students on a sandwich year;
Aptitude is looked for by the trainers and employers of air traffic controllers and they often view this as being more important than qualifications. It is a requirement, however, 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 entrants train through the NATS, which has its own set of requirements for entrance. According to NATS, you will need to show:
- ATC motivation;
- conscientiousness and rule adherence;
- decisiveness and confidence;
- emotional stability;
- error awareness;
- information processing capability;
- numerical awareness;
- open to learning and development;
- planning, decision making and problem solving;
- spatial awareness;
- team working.
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:
- the capability to concentrate and think logically over long periods of time;
- an ability to respond quickly in emergency situations;
- good oral communication skills;
- confidence with technology.
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:
- the government, which owns 49%;
- the Airline Group, a group consisting of seven major UK airlines that owns 42%;
- the Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited, which owns 4%;
- the staff, who own the remainder.
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.
Recruitment takes place at various dates throughout the year with the different training providers so candidates should check with individual providers for details. NATS has an intake to their training courses in January/February, April/May, July/August and October/November every year.
The application and selection process for NATS is a rigorous one containing 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.
Additional general information about the selection process is available from the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers (GATCO).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Aviation Jobsearch
- NATS Careers
- Serco - for international vacancies.
- Individual airport websites.
- National press.
NATS has started to attend some university careers fairs.
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 candidates train with the NATS, they receive a basic wage as the training stages are part of their employment. They may be placed in any location in the UK once a certain part of their training is complete, and the area they 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, candidates 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.
Candidates are assessed throughout their 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 they will continue to go on training courses or will receive in-house training throughout their careers. 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.
But there may be options 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.