Air Traffic Controllers (often shortened to ATCOs) ensure the safe and orderly movement of air traffic in our skies. Over 5000 aircraft pass through UK airspace on a daily basis, and it's the job of ATCOs to maintain their safety and correct position, and manage the flow of aircraft along major air routes. With escalating volumes of air traffic (5% more every year), maximising efficient use of controlled airspace has in recent years become an increasingly important aspect of air traffic control. ATCOs communicate with pilots and instruct them to maintain or alter their height, speed and course, using visual contact, radar, radio and a suite of other communication technologies. Most ATCOs work at Area Control Centres (ACCs) of which there are four in the UK, at West Drayton, Prestwick, Swanwick and Manchester. The most common role is as an Area Controller with responsibility for regulating air traffic along major routes. Other ATCO roles include Approach Controller, dealing with aircraft movement into and out of the airport and Aerodrome Controller, guiding aircraft through landing and to the terminal, including safe landing, take-off and taxi.
- During the training period, trainees receive remuneration of £10,000 per annum.
- Once training has been completed, expect a salary of £15,000 - £19,000.
- Following validation (see above), and appointment as a fully qualified ATCO, salaries are typically in the region of £46,000. Salaries vary depending on the unit you work for.
- ATCOs have the potential to earn up to £80,000, inclusive of shift pay and the London weighting.
An Area Controller is responsible for:
- regulating the flow of air traffic and ensuring aircraft keep a safe distance from each other, according to internationally-agreed standards.
- communicating with the pilot and issuing instructions regarding position, height and speed.
- relaying information relating to weather conditions and other factors that might influence the aircraft.
The role of the Approach Controller is to:
- take over pilot contact from the Area Controller once the aircraft is within range of the airport.
- sequence the most efficient order for aircraft to take off or land.
- give the pilot clearance to approach the airport.
The Aerodrome Controller:
- instructs aircraft to take-off or land safely
- monitors aircraft during landing and take-offs
At the largest airports, the role of Aerodrome Controller may be further subdivided into Air Controllers, who monitor the aircraft during landing, and Ground Movement Controllers, who guide the aircraft through the airport to the terminals once it is grounded.
There are no specific subject requirements for graduates wishing to pursue a career as an ATCO. Science and mathematics would be advantageous, however, as these subjects require numeracy, spatial awareness and technical knowledge – key requirements for air traffic control. A degree is not a prerequisite for the job, as all candidates are required to undergo a rigorous selection procedure and training scheme. The entry requirements for applicants are:
- Minimum of 5 GCSEs at grades A-C (including English Language and Mathematics)
- Minimum of 2 A-Levels, 3 Highers or 1 GNVQ studied to examination level.
- Age 18-30 years.
- Eligibility to work in the UK.
Air traffic control, while not an especially active career, is a physically demanding area to work in. ATCOs work long hours and must ensure accuracy and clear communication. The following are therefore essential:
- good spatial awareness
- good eyesight and normal colour vision (no colour blindness)
- good hearing
- a clear speaking voice and excellent verbal communication skills
- a high level of general health and fitness
There are no other specific entry requirements but it may be worth noting that currently 75% of ATCOs are male. There are no particular barriers for women wanting to join the industry, but it remains a male-dominated field.
ATCOs have a position of great responsibility and often need to work under pressure. Key skills and qualities include:
- ability to remain calm in high stress/emergency situations
- decisiveness and confident decision-making skills
- a degree of emotional detachment
- ability to make rapid calculations and judgements, including distances and angles
- excellent levels of concentration, not easily distracted
- good teamwork
- excellent organisational skills
- a logical and thorough approach
Air traffic control if necessary 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, so some unsociable working hours are unavoidable. ATCOs usually work shifts, typically on two day rotations of Early (07.00-14.00), Late (14.00-22.00) and Night (22.00-0700) shifts, followed by four days off. Working conditions may involve high levels of stress and require long periods of intense concentration and close computer work. Compulsory 30 minute breaks are taken every 2 hours. The annual paid leave entitlement is 28 days. As there are relatively few ACCs, you should be prepared to relocate for promotion or due to ATCO shortages in another unit. ATCOs are not usually required to travel, although the becoming an air traffic controller in the RAF would be a major exception to this rule.
No experience is needed in order to enrol on an ATC training course. The training programme may last 6-18 months, and involves practical and theoretical components. The course is longer for Area Controller trainees (typically 15 months) and shorter for Aerodrome/Approach Controller trainees. Once trainees have satisfactorily completed the course, they are posted to operational units at ACCs, where a further two years of on-the-job training as a trainee air traffic controller is undertaken. This is known as the “validation” period.
National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is by far the biggest UK employer of ATCOs. NATS is the national air traffic control system, and was partly privatised in July 2001. Now a public-private partnership between the government, seven UK airlines, the British Airports Authority, and it's staff, NATS employs over 5000 people. Smaller, regional airports may have their own ATCOs, but opportunities outside NATS are scarce. There is also the possibility of training to become an ATCO within the Royal Air Force (RAF). You may be eligible for a Sixth Form Scholarship (£2000) or University Bursary (£2000 pa) prior to joining the RAF and beginning your traning as an ATCO.
Paid studentships are available for scientific research into air traffic control, through the research institutes of UK universities. Outside the UK, the major European employer is EUROCONTROL. This organisation's major base is the Air Traffic Control Centre at Maastricht, which oversees upper airspace for Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and part of Germany. EUROCONTROL employs around 2000 staff and regularly advertises opportunities for student ATCOs and traineeships.
Air traffic control has a well-defined career structure, with trainees undertaking their two year validation and then progressing to join the qualified ATCO ranks. There is perhaps less age variation than in other industries due to the restrictions on minimum and maximum ages at entry. Note that 80% of ATCOs remain operational controllers for the duration of their career, although there are some opportunities for progression as detailed below.
Once experienced as an ATCO, potential roles include:
- Training instructor (mentoring and assessing trainee ATCOs)
- Operational watch supervisor (managing fellow ATCOs)
- Non-operational ATCO, outside the ACC or airport, and based at a training college or evaluation centre
- Incident investigator (analysing errors and operational problems)