Air traffic controllers manage an aircraft through all aspects of its flight, taking responsibility for the aircraft's safety and ensuring that it lands and takes off on time
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.
Types of air traffic controller
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 and give initial clearance for the aircraft to approach the airport, putting all approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing.
Aerodrome controllers take over at the last stage, guiding pilots to make a safe landing from the top of control towers. The towers enable them to have good all-round viewing of the aerodrome. Aerodrome controllers 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.
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 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 separate aircraft.
RAF 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 approach or 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.
The starting salary is £17,000 for air traffic controllers during their first period of training with NATS. A benefits package including a pension scheme, voluntary benefits and family-friendly policies is on offer to students. Depending on where trainees complete their initial training, weekly payments towards accommodation may also be available, subject to certain criteria.
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 (plus shift pay) at the larger centres of Swanwick and Heathrow. The average salary of a NATS air traffic controller is £97,866.
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 40 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 typically required to stay at their desk or station for two hours 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.
- NATS employees may be required to move to different locations depending on company needs. 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 and this is often viewed as being more important than qualifications.
However, you'll be required to have at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and Maths. You must also be over the age of 18 when applying and legally eligible to work in the UK.
In addition to the Trainee Air Traffic Controller opportunity, NATS also offers three early careers structured development programmes for:
- college leavers who have studied at BTEC ND/HNC/HND level
- university students on a sandwich year
NATS is currently applying to make part of its air traffic control training an accredited apprenticeship scheme. If this is implemented, information about the scheme and how to apply will be will be made available on the company's website.
The majority of candidates train through the NATS, which has its own set of entry requirements. According to NATS, you will need to show:
- conscientiousness and rule adherence
- decisiveness and confidence
- emotional stability
- error awareness
- information processing capability
- numerical awareness
- an openness to learning and development
- planning, decision making and problem solving
- spatial awareness
- the ability to work as part of a team.
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's possible that you may pass the Class 3 medical but still 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.
NATS is the main employer of air traffic controllers. It's a public-private partnership between:
- the government, which owns 49%
- the Airline Group, a group consisting of six major UK airlines, USS Sherwood Limited and the Pension Protection fund, that owns 42%
- LHR Airports Limited, which owns 4%
- the 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.
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.
The NATS website features a series of mini-games, which allow you to test cognitive skills such as shape tracking, sequential memory and reactivity. The games measure how you approach problems, handle pressure and adapt to changing situations and may help you decide whether air traffic control is a suitable career for you.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Aviation Jobsearch
- International Civil Aviation Organization
- NATS Careers
- Serco - for international vacancies.
You can also check individual airline websites.
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. If you complete your training with a course provider other than NATS, you’ll be able to apply for trainee roles with other air services operators, where you’ll continue with your training.
If you train with NATS, you’ll receive a basic wage as the training stages are part of your employment. The area you specialise in is usually determined by business needs.
The basic training with NATS usually takes around three 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 their training.
Upon completion of this stage, you’ll be placed in available positions and continue with training to work towards validation. The time it takes to reach validation depends on how quickly you adapt to the work and the unit you're placed in.
You're assessed throughout your training through the use of practical exercises, exams and oral tests.
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 International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA).
It's possible for air traffic controllers to move to larger airports with experience. There may also be the opportunity to progress to manager level.
You may have the opportunity to become 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.