Air traffic controller: job description

Air traffic controller: job description

Air traffic controllers are responsible for directing the safe movement of aircraft arriving and departing from airports and along major air routes.
Salaries after you’ve been validated (three years in the role) could be as much as £51,000.

What does an air traffic controller do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

The 250 million passengers who pass through UK airspace every year 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.

The job demands a high level of responsibility and can be stressful, but offers high financial rewards and a sense of achievement. Mobility in terms of location is a common requirement. Opportunities may exist in North America, the Middle East and, currently, the European Union due to the status of English as the international language of air traffic.

Typical employers of air traffic controllers

  • National Air Traffic Services (NATS)
  • Armed forces
  • Regional airports
  • Airlines

Qualifications and training required

Air traffic control is open to people from all educational backgrounds, with aptitudes rather than qualifications granting entry to training courses. Typical requirements include five GCSEs (or equivalent), including maths and English, all at grade C or above, and a minimum age of 18 at application.

Training begins with a basic three-month course before being allocated to area control, approach or aerodrome. Following this a course in the relevant theory must be completed, which will take around nine months depending on specialisation. Supervised, on-the-job validation training and assessments are then necessary. On average, the entire process takes three years. After validation, pay grades and career prospects advance rapidly; within three years it is possible to earn between £46,000 and £51,000. Training courses offering a basic salary, accommodation allowance and benefits package are available to students, with the salary increasing to £17,000–£20,000 during validation training and around £32,000–£36,000 upon validation.

Although education to degree level is not required, experience of further study can be helpful as the workload can be very demanding.

Key skills for air traffic controllers

As controllers must be able to understand and quickly analyse complex radar and computerised flight data, and respond appropriately, the following are essential:

  • good eyesight and colour vision
  • good physical and mental health – applicants with certain conditions such as epilepsy may not be permitted to undertake training programmes
  • problem solving skills
  • excellent communication skills
  • ability to work quickly and accurately under pressure
  • decisiveness
  • the ability to remain calm when under pressure – particularly when dealing with emergency situations
  • self-discipline
  • adeptness with technology
  • spatial awareness
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