Air traffic controllers (sometimes called a transport controller) are exceptionally important collaborators for pilots. These people have mounds of information at their fingertips, and it is their job to convey the information to the pilot and cabin crew and cover various aspects of aircraft control.
Controllers can work in several areas of aviation. Aerodromes, military bases or commercial airlines need a guiding hand to help the pilots do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Air traffic controllers are also appreciated every year on the 20th of October, in what is referred to as International Air Traffic Controller Day or the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller.
What is an air traffic controller?
An air traffic controller manages the safety and flow of aircraft. Air traffic controllers (often abbreviated to ATCs), operate in airport control towers and will constantly communicate with pilots to advise them about take-off, landing and any potential issues that may arise throughout their ascent and descent.
A controller uses a variety of complex equipment. Radar and communication equipment is often supplemented by advanced, often bespoke software.
A degree or a higher national diploma (HND) is not a requirement for this role, though it is highly useful.
Generally, there are four types of air traffic control. Aerodrome controllers (or tower controllers), who are responsible for moving aircraft around the closest aerodrome safely; approach controllers, who give clearance for approaching aircraft; area controllers, who are based at Prestwick (Ayrshire, Scotland) or Swanwick (Hampshire, England) and manage high altitude aircraft; and RAF and Royal Navy aircraft operators, who work with an air and naval bases.
An air traffic controller has a small but highly-important set of responsibilities. Your responsibilities will depend on what type of air traffic controller you are and how senior you are.
The most common responsibilities needed for aircraft controllers are:
- Advise on the ascent and descent plans.
- Be on hand for emergency landings.
- Chart a course for the aircraft.
- Instruct pilots to avoid mid-air collisions.
- Maintain the equipment in the airport control tower.
- Provide accurate, up-to-date information regarding weather, runaway traffic and circling aircraft.
- Remain in radio contact with pilots, aircraft and cabin crew.
Once you move into senior management roles, your responsibilities will expand. At this level, you will be expected to manage a team of controllers and liaise with other essential workers.
Your salary will largely depend on how senior you are in your position and where you are working. Air traffic controllers are entitled to pension schemes, voluntary benefits and friends-and-family discounts.
Trainee air traffic controllers start off with a salary of around £17,000. A £60-a-week allowance also supplements this salary to cover expenses when training.
Your salary increases once you have completed traffic management training. As you evolve in your role, take on more responsibilities and work as a licensed air traffic controller for some time, your salary can range between £28,000 and £51,000.
Once you have become a senior air traffic controller, your salary can increase further. The range will depend on where you are working and what exactly your job entails. However, a senior air traffic controller salary will typically range from £53,500 and £99,000.
A degree or a higher national diploma (HND) is not a requirement for this role, though it is highly useful. Postgraduate study is also not a requirement but is equally useful for the role.
For those who are going to university, the best subjects to study are:
- Aviation and Airport Management degrees
- Communications degrees
- English language degrees
- Information technology degrees
- Maths degrees
- Physics degrees
Most qualifications needed for this role will be based on industry-standard qualifications. Lots of companies will ask you to have 5 or more GCSEs at grade 4 or over, preferably including English and Maths.
The qualifications needed to become an air traffic controller may differ depending on the industry. For instance, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy may have different entry requirements compared to a registered airline.
Training and development
Before you can begin training in your role, you must first complete a series of aptitude tests with the NATS (National Air Traffic Services).
These services are open to all those who meet the following criteria:
- Aged 18 or over when applying.
- Eligible to work in the UK.
- Five or more GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade 4 or higher.
- Meets the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) medical standards.
The NATS graduate scheme will have several tests and assessments for you. This will include situational awareness and cognitive skills tests completed online.
Work experience is not required for this role, but it is useful when applying.
After completing the NATS training, you will be asked to attend college to complete your studies. These colleges will be in Gloucester or Hampshire in the UK or Jerez, Spain - and are usually completed over a 12 to 18-month period.
Training with the NATS is not mandatory, however, any other training will be undertaken at your own expense.
Outside of the NATS, your training and development will be your responsibility. Your airline will also be involved with selecting courses, but if you find an external training course provided by a third party, you can ask to attend the course.
Air traffic controllers are not required to undertake a continuing professional development (CPD), however, it is recommended. Some airlines require ATCs to complete a CPD annually, while others are less stringent. A CPD allows you to keep your skills and knowledge up to date and challenge yourself.
An air traffic controller needs a wide range of skills to be successful. As you move into senior positions, you must add management and presentation skills to your repertoire.
The skills needed to be an air traffic controller are:
- An excellent ability to work under pressure.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Excellent problem-solving skills.
- Excellent technological skills.
- Excellent written and verbal skills.
- Good mathematical skills.
- Good spatial awareness.
- The ability to receive and process information quickly.
- The ability to think on your feet.
These skills can be further honed through training and development.
Work experience is not required for this role, but it is useful when applying. It is best if you have completed some work experience, either shadowing an airline pilot or working in an airport in an unrelated capacity before applying to jobs.
Finding work experience placements or internships as part of your degree is possible. This will not be at an air traffic controller level but will allow you to work in an airport, for an airline or with aircraft personnel. Air traffic controller apprenticeships, aviation work experience, internships, airport placements and work experience placements can often be found on the NATS website.
The career prospects for an air traffic controller are very fulfilling. To begin, you will start as a trainee air traffic controller, where you will learn the ropes, get to grips with the software and learn how to use the equipment.
An air traffic controller manages the safety and flow of aircraft.
Once you have completed your initial traineeship, you will become a flight controller. You will be responsible for managing crews on the ground and maintaining constant radio communication with planes in the air.
Typically, air traffic controllers do not often move into other work areas related to the role they were trained in. It is possible to look into the possibilities of becoming a pilot or an aircraft engineer, however, both roles require extensive training and qualifications and there are very few other controller jobs or air traffic engineer jobs.
It is possible to move into a management or senior role that allows you to manage teams or training. There is generally more call for experienced controllers who can manage the training of new recruits and ensure that all of the equipment and software in the control room is up to date.