By DebbieH 12 Sep 2017 6 min read

Air Traffic Controller: Job Description

Air traffic controllers are responsible for the safe flight of aircraft and for providing pilots with details on when and where they should land at an airport. They work in control centres or in airport control towers to track flights using radar and radio equipment and communicate advice and instructions to pilots. They play a vital role in managing airspace and keeping aircraft safe.

There are different types of air traffic controller who specialise in the different stages of a flight. Area controllers work in regional control centres and guide aircraft through their own sectors. Approach controllers take over once the aircraft starts to approach the airport. They give pilots clearance to get into sequence with other aircraft in preparation for landing. The final stage in the landing process is overseen by aerodrome controllers. They work from the control towers in airports and are responsible for guiding the aircraft to a safe landing. They also ensure that the planes then reach their parking stands safely.

If you are confident with technology, have an interest in the aviation industry and have good problem-solving skills, a career as an air traffic controller could be for you.


What does an air traffic controller do?

The duties of an aircraft controller depend on what stage of the flight they are in charge of. The general duties of area, approach and aerodrome controllers include:  

  • Using sophisticated radar and radio technology to track the progress of aircraft.
  • Maintaining contact with the pilots on board each aircraft in their sector.
  • Advising pilots on weather conditions and how this might affect their flight path.
  • Instructing aircraft on the routes to be followed towards an airport.
  • Coordinating a safe distance between planes whilst in flight.
  • Instructing pilots as to the cruising height appropriate for their flight plan.
  • Adjusting flight plans in unexpected circumstances or emergencies.
  • Directing the movement of aircraft on the ground to and from runways.
  • Coordinating the sequence of aircraft coming into land in an airport.
  • Coordinating any traffic around the terminals, such as aircraft, ground crew, passenger buses etc.



What qualifications do you need to become an air traffic controller?

To become an air traffic controller in the UK, you’ll need to qualify for a licence from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). To begin your training, you will need to have at least 5 GCSEs at grade A*-C (9-4), including English and Maths. Although a degree isn’t essential, further study of a mathematical or scientific subject may help with your career prospects due to the technical aspects of the role.

You will also need to prove that you have a good level of physical and mental health and meet the standards of the European Class 3 medical certificate as set by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). A final requirement is that you pass a security clearance which will check for details such as a criminal record.

Once you have passed these checks you can apply for the NATS air traffic controller training course. This is a rigorous course of assessment and training that takes between three and four years to complete. NATS accept around 20 trainees per 3,300 applicants and only around 15 of these will complete the training and receive their license. See their infographic for more information on this process.



What skills do you need to become an air traffic controller?

  • You will need excellent communication skills in order to relay information to pilots and instruct them on any changes to flight plans.
  • You will need a great deal of motivation to succeed in a career as an air traffic controller. NATS UK only accepts a handful of applicants and even if you become a trainee, the course is demanding.
  • The ability to remain calm under pressure is essential when faced with any emergencies with aircraft in the air or on the ground.
  • You will need to be able to concentrate over an extended period of time as pilots and other controllers will be relying on the information that you provide.
  • Your role will require confidence with technology as much of it will revolve around the use of sophisticated radar.
  • You will then need to be able to interpret the data the technology is relaying and process large amounts of information in a short space of time.
  • Being decisive with this information and communicating important aspects of it to pilots is essential for the safety of the airspace.
  • You will also need to demonstrate good problem-solving skills in order to deal efficiently with unexpected circumstances and ensure the safety of passengers and crew.
  • Teamwork is also an essential skill as you will have to work with other controllers and pilots to coordinate the positions of aircraft in the airspace.


Working conditions

Air traffic controllers work between 37 and 40 hours a week, which is spread our in shifts over days, nights and weekends, as well as public holidays.

Air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities or en-route centres. Many tower and approach/departure controllers work near large airports. Approach/departure controllers often work in semi dark rooms. Controllers must work rapidly and efficiently, while maintaining total concentration. The mental stress of being responsible for the safety of aircraft and their passengers can be taxing. As a result, controllers to to retire earlier than most workers: those with 20 years experience are eligible to retire at age 50, and as a whole, controllers are required to retire at age 56.


How much does an air traffic controller earn?*

The NATS website offers a comprehensive run through of the salaries you can expect to earn at each stage of your career. Once accepted as a trainee your basic salary will be £13,154.40 and you will be eligible for a benefits package. Once you’ve completed the first stage of your training in college, you’ll be posted to a NATS Unit where you’ll receive the next stage of your education. This comes with an increase in salary to between £17,066 and £20,479.

Once qualified your salary will be in the region of £32,522 – £36,247. As you gain experience, you will be eligible for rises in salary and experienced controllers who work in Heathrow Tower and at Swanwick Centre can earn in excess of £100,000. Below are estimates of an air traffic controller salary in the UK:


Trainee: £13,154 to £20,279

Qualified: £32,522 to £51,781

Experienced: £100,000+

Average salary*: £51,844*

*Glassdoor 2019


What are your career prospects as an air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers usually train as either area, approach or aerodrome controllers and stay in their chosen discipline throughout their careers. In each of these areas is the opportunity to become managers or supervisors and take on the responsibility of managing other controllers.

You could also work as an air traffic controller in the RAF.

Some controllers decide to take on training roles and work in colleges or assessment units for new recruits.

The international language used in air control is English which opens up the possibility for work in other countries.

*Salaries are meant as a guide and can vary depending on a number of factors.