The 600,000 people who pass through UK airspace every day rely on air traffic controllers to get them to their destination safely and efficiently.
Controllers maintain radio/radar contact with aircraft pilots within designated areas, providing them with advice, instructions and information about weather conditions and safe flight, ascent and descent paths.
Air traffic controllers specialise in either area control, approach or aerodrome control, and specialisation will determine the typical nature of communication with an aircraft. Although it is possible to state a preference, the specialisation offered to students embarking on a training course may depend on the company’s needs. The majority of controllers specialise in area control and work from area control centres where they are responsible for air traffic between airports in UK airspace. Approach controllers work at airports in the control tower, guiding planes as they land. Aerospace controllers also work in airport control towers, working alongside approach controllers as planes land and dealing with traffic on the ground in the aerodrome.
Most air traffic controllers are employed by NATS, the main air navigation service provider in the UK. To qualify for training with them, you need to be over 18 and have (or have the equivalent of) at least five GCSEs at Grade 4 or above (previously A to C) or Scottish National 5s at grade A to C, including English and Maths. While a degree isn’t required, you need a high level of concentration and commitment to take on the large workload of a trainee, and a degree might prepare you for this.
Training begins with 12 to 18 months of college-based training, including practical and theory orientated learning. You will then be posted to an operational unit to continue with practical training, before gaining an air traffic controller license. Afterwards, you’ll work at an operational unit; you might be posted anywhere in the UK.
The entire training process can take around three years. It’s important that air traffic controllers maintain up-to-date knowledge and a strong skills set, so you will be expected to attend training courses/sessions throughout your career.
As a trainee, you’ll start out on a salary of £17,000, along with a weekly payment of £60. After you’ve completed training, your salary will increase to between £37,014 and £41,253. Eventually, you could earn over £100,000.
Once you’ve completed training, you might decide to work your way up to a managerial position. However, it’s unlikely that you will be able to move to another role within the industry; positions in area, approach and aerodrome are specialised, so the vast majority of people remain in the area they trained for.
Air traffic controllers must have the following:
- strong eyesight and colour vision
- the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time
- problem-solving skills
- spatial awareness and good coordination
- excellent communication and teamworking skills
- the ability to work quickly, accurately, calmly and decisively under pressure
- motivation and self-discipline
- an aptitude for working with technology
- flexibility with regards to the locations you’d be willing to work.
It’s also important for air traffic controllers to have good physical and mental health; you’ll be expected to pass a class three medical and to adhere to strict regulations regarding drugs (zero tolerance) and alcohol. Applicants with certain conditions such as epilepsy may not be permitted to undertake training programmes.
As you can see by the skills listed, the role of air traffic controller is a pretty demanding one. However, if you’re up to the job, rewards come in the form of good earning potential and the ability to progress to a position of high responsibility.
On the careers section of the NATS website, there are useful games designed to give participants an indication of whether they will be suited to the role of air traffic controller. They test aptitudes such as spatial awareness, coordination and the ability to work under pressure. If you’re deciding whether this is the career path for you, it might be a good idea to start by playing these games.