Air traffic controllers manage an aircraft in controlled airspace through all aspects of its flight, taking responsibility for the aircraft's safety and making the flight as efficient as possible
As an air traffic controller, you'll use highly sophisticated radar and radio communication equipment to communicate advice, information and instructions to pilots. You'll guide the aircraft as it travels, using radar to track its exact position, keep it safe in the airspace and provide the most efficient route.
The majority of air traffic controllers work within area control centres, with just some working from control towers at airports. The role carries considerable responsibility and requires excellent concentration. Your exact role will depend on where you work.
Types of air traffic controller
Approach controllers are typically based at airports but some may work in area control centres. They manage aircraft that is approaching the airport and give initial clearance for the approach, putting all approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing. They 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 can also manage aircraft that have just departed the airport and are still in their initial phases of flight.
Aerodrome controllers can also be known as tower controllers. They work within the control towers at airports which enables them to have good all-round viewing of the aerodrome. They’re responsible for moving aircraft safely around the aerodrome between runways and stands. They also give aircraft clearance to take off and land.
Area controllers are usually based at one of the control centres in either Prestwick (Ayrshire, Scotland) or Swanwick (Hampshire, England). They manage aircraft at higher altitudes (over 5,000ft) and are responsible for the aircraft during the climb, descent and en-route phase of the flight. They also issue levels, headings and speeds to keep aircraft at safe separate levels. They will usually be given a specific section of airspace to manage.
RAF and Royal Navy air operations (control) officers carry out the same take-off and landing procedures as civilian air traffic controllers, but also make sure that air bases are maintained and prepared for emergencies. They communicate with civilian air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace.
As an air traffic controller, you'll need to:
- keep radio and radar contact with aircraft
- direct the movement of aircraft en route or at an airport
- instruct aircraft to climb or descend and allocate final cruising level
- provide information to aircraft about weather conditions
- make sure that minimum distances are maintained between planes
- handle unexpected events, emergencies and unscheduled traffic.
If you're working as an aerodrome controller, you'll also need to:
- control movements on and off runways
- handle the ground movement of planes around the terminals and vehicles around the airport.
- Trainee air traffic controllers earn a salary of £17,000 with NATS. A weekly payment of around £60 is also available to help to cover your expenses as you’ll be expected to attend one of NATS colleges for your training.
- On completion of training, you can expect a salary in the range of £37,014 to £41,253, location dependent.
- Senior controllers with substantial experience can potentially earn over £100,000 (including shift pay) at NATS busiest units.
A benefits package including a pension scheme, voluntary benefits and family-friendly policies is typically offered at all levels.
Pay at private air traffic control companies may differ slightly to that offered by NATS.
Income data from NATS Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Air traffic controllers usually work between 37 and 45 hours a week, but this is spread out over days, nights, weekends and public holidays.
Air traffic control has to be manned 24 hours a day, so shift work is used to ensure there is always cover.
What to expect
- Air traffic controllers are required to stay at their desk or station for set times before taking a break. The busy work and amount of concentration required to deal with high levels of pressure can lead to tiredness. 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, as well as in airports across the UK in control towers. Some are managed by NATS, while others are run by private companies or individual airports.
- Air traffic controllers are mobile grades within NATS meaning employees may be required to work anywhere in the UK as determined by the needs of the company. This is often written into contracts.
- Air traffic controllers are subject to the Rail and Transport Safety Act. 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's 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.
Trainers and employers of air traffic controllers look for aptitude in areas such as problem solving, handling pressure and dealing with changing situations. This is often viewed as being more important than qualifications.
As part of the entry process with NATS, you'll need to pass several online assessments that test cognitive and situational judgement skills. To get an idea of what these may be like you can have a go at some mini-games on the NATS website. Other employers of air traffic controllers will expect you to have the same skills and it’s likely they will run similar tests as part of the entry programme.
In addition to passing the entry tests, you'll be required to meet the following requirements:
- have at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade 4 or above, including English and Maths
- over the age of 18 when applying
- legally eligible to work in the UK
- able to meet the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) medical standards.
NATS is currently applying to make part of its air traffic control training an accredited apprenticeship scheme. If this is implemented, it means candidates would get a Level 5 recognised apprenticeship qualification. Keep a check on the NATS website for further developments.
You'll need to show:
- excellent levels of concentration and ability to focus for long periods
- ability to work well under pressure
- decisiveness and good problem-solving and planning skills
- spatial awareness
- information processing capability
- good communication skills
- ability to adapt to changing situations
- numeracy skills
- an ability to respond quickly in emergency situations
- emotional stability
- ability to work independently but also be part of a wider team
- motivation and conscientiousness
- 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.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
NATS is the main employer of air traffic controllers. It's a public-private partnership between:
- the government, which owns 49%
- the Airline Group, which owns 42%
- UK airport operator, LHR Airports Limited, which owns 4%
- NATS staff, who own the remaining 5%.
NATS is the sole employer of area controllers who work on en route services in the area control centres 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 14 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 Air Partner.
Look for job vacancies at:
You can also check individual airline websites.
The structure of your training is likely to vary depending on the provider.
If you pass the assessment stages with NATS, you'll then join as a trainee air traffic controller and will attend one of their colleges in either Hampshire, Gloucester or Jerez in Spain.
The length of your training depends on the specialism you're taking and how quickly you're able to complete the different phases, which include a combination of practical and theory-based sessions. Typically it will take 12 to 18 months to complete.
After this, you're sent to an operational unit, the location of which is based on company needs so you'll have to be willing to relocate if necessary. Once there, you'll continue with practical training until you validate and are issued with an ATC licence.
You'll be paid a salary throughout all of your training with NATS and may also receive an additional weekly payment to help cover your living costs.
If you choose not to train with NATS and instead go via a private course provider you'll need to pay for the training but you can usually choose the area you wish to specialise in. Once you have completed your initial training, you'll be able to apply for trainee roles with other air services operators, where you’ll continue with your 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.
Information on training offered by NATS is available at NATS ATC Training. Useful news updates are available from the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA).
It's possible for air traffic controllers to move to larger, busier airports with experience. There may also be the opportunity to progress to manager level, becoming a group supervisor or manager of a watch or unit. In these positions, you'd 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 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.