Air Traffic Control

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What does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Being an Air Traffic Controller is a fast-paced job requiring quick decision making and sound judgement.

Air traffic controllers are responsible for managing communication with pilots and providing assistance in the event of an emergency.

Their primary concern is the safe flight of the aircraft, and are further responsible for managing the flow of aircraft in and out of the airport. They must work rapidly, with the utmost efficiency, and often work in towers or control facilities.

Typically, air traffic controllers work within airport traffic control towers, at the terminal or Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC), to direct all air traffic, and ensure that pilots receive appropriate instructions for taxi, takeoff, and landing.

What are some of the key responsibilities of Air Traffic Controllers?

Some of the main responsibilities include:

  • Issue takeoff and landing instructions to pilots
  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground  through the use of radar and computers
  • Control the majority of ground traffic at airports
  • Provide pertinent information to pilots, such as runway closures, weather updates as well as other critical information
  • In the case of emergency, alert airport response staff
  • Tracking and guiding aircraft
  • Managing aircraft as they approach the airport
  • Coordinating with the pilots to help them land, park, and line up for take-off

What Qualifications & Skills Do I need to become an Air Traffic Controller

In order to qualify to be an air traffic controller, you’ll need to get an air traffic control licence from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which can take around 3 years to train.

You’ll complete your training whilst working as a trainee controller. Getting work as a trainee control will require at least 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, a medical examination, and DBS security clearance.

Some of the most important skills you will need to do the job well include the ability to stay calm under pressure, attention to detail, proficient IT skills, strong problem solving skills, excellent troubleshooting skills and communication skills.

What Can I Expect to Earn as an Air Traffic Controller?

As a junior ATC you can expect to earn between £17,000 and £21,000. As you progress through the ranks, you can expect to earn anywhere between £46,000 and £50,000.


Your tasks may vary depending on whether you’re working as an area, approach or aerodrome controller, but they’ll include:
• Keeping radio and radar contact with aircraft
• Directing the movement of aircraft en route or at an airport
• Instructing aircraft to climb or descend and allocating final cruising level
• Providing information to aircraft about weather conditions
• Making sure that minimum distances are maintained between planes
• Handling unexpected events, emergencies and unscheduled traffic.

Duties specific for approach and aerodrome controllers include:
• Controlling movements on and off runways
• Handling the ground movement of planes around the terminals
• Handling the ground movement of vehicles around the airport.


The majority of candidates train through the NATS, which has its own set of entry requirements. According to NATS, you will need to show:

  • motivation
  • conscientiousness and rule adherence
  • decisiveness and confidence
  • emotional stability
  • error awareness
  • information processing capability
  • numerical awareness
  • open to learning and development
  • planning, decision making and problem solving
  • spatial awareness
  • the ability to work as part of a team.

Candidates must also meet certain medical requirements, which include passing a European Class 3 medical certificate. A summary of the eligibility criteria for medical conditions can be found at NATS Careers.

It’s possible that you may pass the Class 3 medical but still not meet all of the requirements of NATS. In this instance, it may be possible to complete training with another air traffic services provider and then apply for air traffic controller jobs after that. As well as the above criteria, you will need to show:

  • the capability to concentrate and think logically over long periods of time
  • an ability to respond quickly in emergency situations
  • good oral communication skills
  • confidence with technology.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is not required as full training is given for the role. However, a background in office-based work, customer service or communication-based roles may be an advantage.

What to expect

Air traffic controllers are typically required to stay at their desk or station for two hours before taking a break. The busy work and amount of concentration required to deal with high levels of pressure can lead to tiredness. The office environment is normally made comfortable so it aids the controllers in their critical work.

  • Jobs in the UK are available at the NATS control centres located in Swanwick and Prestwick, as well as in airports across the UK in control towers. Some are managed by NATS, while others are run by private companies or individual airports.
  • NATS employees may be required to move to different locations depending on company needs. This is often written into contracts.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is virtually impossible.
  • Air traffic controllers are subject to the Rail and Transport Safety Act. This act sets strict limits on blood-alcohol levels (well below the drink/drive levels) and drugs are forbidden. Random testing can take place.
  • Overseas work or travel is uncommon but it’s possible to move with overseas employers, notably in North America and the Middle East.

RAF Air Operations (Control)

The RAF has 2 areas of employment within Air Operations (Control), they are Air Operations (Control) Officer and Air Operations (Control) Sergeant. Whichever level of entry you choose, Air Operations (Control) is a diverse, exciting and complex role which directs and supports operations both in the UK and around the world. The three key employment areas are Terminal Air Traffic Control (ATC) (providing an ATC service at an airfield), Area Control (working alongside civilian air traffic controllers at the UK’s Air Traffic Control Centre at Swanwick) and finally as a Weapons Controller (directing fast jet aircraft to intercept potentially hostile aircraft that threaten the integrity of the UK’s Airspace).

Using state of the art radar and communications technology you will be trained to:

  • Safely integrate military and civilian aircraft departing from and arriving at military airfields.
  • Become part of the team that order Typhoon fast-jets to scramble and intercept suspect aircraft.
  • Control fighter, bomber, surveillance, refuelling and even unmanned aircraft as they support a number of different training and operational tasks.
  • Work alongside civilian controllers as an Area Radar Controller ensuring military aircraft operate safely amongst civilian airliners in the UK’s congested airspace.
  • Provide specialist battlespace management support to both UK and multi-national exercises and operations around the world.
  • Deploy on military operations as part of the Tactical Air Traffic Control team that establishes temporary runways in austere locations in support of several agencies including UK Special Forces.

Within Air Operations (Control) you could be working from a field, a bunker, a building, a tent, an E-3D aircraft or even an aircraft carrier. Regardless, you will be part of a varied and stimulating organisation which offers an excellent career and worldwide employment opportunities that is at the heart of the RAF’s flying output.

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