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Career Advice

How to become an air traffic controller

For some, it’s their dream job but for others, their worst nightmare – the role of air traffic controller is not without its Air Traffic Controllerpleasures, but is surely one of the most highly intense and stressful of widely available careers. We are all familiar with their role in aviation… they schedule and guide the takeoff and landing of planes right? Well, as always, it’s not quite as simple as that…

The Role  

First and foremost on the agenda of the air traffic controller is the safety of the aircraft and those passengers and crew onboard.  Secondary in their job description is making sure that departures and arrivals take place in a timely manner.  You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of air traffic controllers don’t actually work in the control towers that you see at airports but actually in centralised area control centres.  There are 3 main types of air traffic controllers in operation within the UK:

1) Area controllers – These folks are concerned with guiding and monitoring the progress of aircraft through all stages of flight.  They maintain constant awareness of the aircraft’s location through the use of radar, ensuring safety and providing advice on the most efficient route available.

2) Approach controllers – These (as their name suggests) take over as the aircraft begins its approach towards the destination airport. They are the ones with whom people are most familiar as it is they who put approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing.

3) Aerodrome controllers – Located at the top of airport control towers these deal with the final stages of the flight, its landing and subsequent movements on the ground. Depending on the size of the airport and the number of flights it handles, these staff can sometimes be divided further into ‘air’ and ‘ground’ controllers.

Salary and hours of work

The salary that can be expected by air traffic controllers is fairly well standardised across the industry, however there is large difference between pay received by those in training and that of fully qualified staff.  Those in college training receive around £11,000 per annum, post-college staff (still in training) can expect around £16,000 and fully qualified controllers will receive somewhere in the region of £30,000.  With growing experience and seniority controllers standardly receive about £40,000 however over the course of a career this figure can rise steadily and eventually approach £90,000 at some of the larger control centres.

An average working week will see air traffic controllers log 37 hours (a standard length full-time role) however due to the 24 hour nature of the work this will be spread over days, nights, weekends and public holidays – thus this career is only suitable for those who can have the flexibility required to work on a shift pattern.

Work activities

It would be nearly impossible to adequately describe the intense complexity of the role of air traffic controller, however here are a few of the things you could expect to encounter on a day to day basis(it’s worth noting however that not all of these will apply to each type of controller);

  • Maintaining radio and radar contact with aircrafts in your charge at all times

  • Advising and directing the movements of aircraft on the ground

  • Directing the route of aircraft in the air, ensuring their safety at all times and suggesting the most efficient route for pilots to take

  • Managing the cruising altitude of the aircraft and advising aircraft to ascend or descend

  • Keeping pilot abreast of changes in weather conditions

  • Being ever ready to deal with unexpected situations such as emergency landings

  • Management of aircraft movements of the ground

  • Ensuring that flight schedules are adhered to wherever possible.

Skills and personal attributes

Whilst many of these skills and attributes are self-evident, the high pressure nature of the role (and indeed the fact that question-markmany lives depend upon your ability to do the job correctly) it is important to really examine each of these before you make the decision to apply for a training course.

  • The ability to work calmly and accurately in a very high pressure environment

  • Highly developed communication skills, particularly verbal as much of the work of an air traffic controller is delivering instructions and information to pilots, often for whom English is not their first language

  • The ability to work confidently with highly sophisticated pieces of technology and the willingness to constantly embrace innovations within the industry

  • Confidence in your own problem solving and decision making skills and the level headedness to “think on your feet” and process a large volume of information at any given time.

  • Outstanding maths skills

  • HIghly developed sense of direction and spatial awareness

  • A responsible attitude to your work with an understanding of its importance to the safety of passengers, crew and members of the public on the ground.

  • The willingness and ability to work as a member of a team in a high pressure environment

  • The flexibility to fulfill the working hours of the role which will include nights, weekends and public holidays

Qualifications – UK

You will notice that the level of previous qualifications which are required in order to be accepted onto a air traffic controller training course are significantly less that you would expect from a role which includes such generous earning potential.  This is because, although a good level of education is required, the training provider will be more interested in your aptitude for the role, given its highly skilled nature and the often extreme pressure under which you will be expected to work.  But this is not to say that a high level of education will not help you in gaining a training position, this is particularly true of degree areas which provide a high level of numeracy or technical knowledge.  Such degrees are certainly not a prerequisite though and nor is relevant prior experience as full training is given.

Those wishing to become an air traffic controller must first apply for a position on a training course – within the UK the vast majority do so through the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) (http://www.nats.aero/).  Candidates are subject to a wide range of aptitude testing designed to determine their suitability for the role.  The areas which this testing procedure examines include ATC motivation; conscientiousness and rule adherence, emotional stability, error awareness, decisiveness and confidence, information processing capability, numeracy,  spatial awareness and team working.

The testing procedure is long, intense and contains online and paper tests, assessment days, group exercises and an interview.  If accepted onto the course be aware that the college portion of your training will take several months and may include a lengthy stay away from home.

Once your training within the college has been completed (having passed all sections of the course) you will then seek employment in a trainee position within an air traffic control unit from which you will work towards qualifying as an operational air traffic control officer.  Once training has been fully completed you will be able to apply for an air traffic control licence. The process from initial training to qualification normally takes around 3 years, although this is variable.

If you still reckon that the high pressure life of an air traffic controller is the one for you then best of luck, but if the thought of all that responsibility is making your stomach take flight then you might want to take a look at some of the other great careers in our career directory.


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