What are the main responsibilities of an air traffic controller?
The main role of an air traffic controller is to ensure the safe and efficient flow of air traffic within their assigned airspace. This includes monitoring the movements of aircraft, providing guidance to pilots, issuing clearances for takeoff and landing, and coordinating with other air traffic controllers and ground crews to maintain a safe environment for all crews and passengers.
In the UK, the main employer of air traffic controllers is NATS (National Air Traffic Services) which employs over 4,500 people and handles up to 2.5 million flights a year within UK aerospace.
What are the different types of air traffic controllers?
NATS employs three main types of air traffic controllers: Aerodrome Controllers, Area Controllers, and Approach Controllers. The main differences between these roles are:
Aerodrome Controllers: Aerodrome Controllers are responsible for managing the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the vicinity of an airport. Their main responsibilities include issuing clearances for takeoff and landing, providing guidance to pilots during taxiing, and coordinating with ground crews to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the airport.
Approach Controllers: Approach Controllers are responsible for managing the movement of aircraft in the airspace surrounding an airport. Their primary responsibilities include organising arriving aircraft into efficient sequences for landing, providing guidance to pilots during approach and landing, and ensuring that aircraft are kept at a safe distance from each other. They also work closely with Aerodrome Controllers to coordinate the safe flow of air traffic between the airport and surrounding airspace.
Area Controllers: Area Controllers are responsible for managing the movement of aircraft at higher altitudes, during their journeys between airports. Their primary responsibilities include managing the climb and descent phases of flights, directing aircraft along designated airways, and providing separation between aircraft. They also monitor weather conditions, issue clearances for changes in altitude and speed, and provide guidance to pilots during emergencies.
Overall, the main differences between these 3 roles are the location of the airspace that they control, and the specific responsibilities associated with managing air traffic within that airspace. While each of these roles requires unique skills and knowledge, all air traffic controllers must have a deep understanding of aviation procedures and regulations.
What are the minimum requirements for applying to become an air traffic controller?
In the UK, applicants need to meet the following minimum requirements to be able to apply for a role with NATS as an air traffic controller.
Education: Applicants must have a minimum of five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C/4 or above, including maths and English. Additionally, NATS typically prefers candidates who have some higher education, such as A-levels or a degree.
Age and Citizenship: Applicants must be at least 18 years old and have the legal right to work in the UK.
Medical: Applicants must be able to meet the CAA’s medical standards.
What are the most important skills for air traffic controllers?
In addition to the above requirements, NATS typically looks for candidates who have excellent communication skills, the ability to remain calm under pressure, and the ability to work well in a team.
In NATS’ own words:
“To be a Controller you’ll need a specific set of skills, a calm nature and a healthy dose of self-resilience.”
Here are some examples of both hard and soft skills that are essential for a career as an air traffic controller.
Technical Knowledge: Air traffic controllers must have a deep understanding of aviation procedures, regulations, and technical equipment used in air traffic control, such as radar systems, communication systems, and navigation aids.
Attention to Detail: Air traffic controllers must be able to pay close attention to small details and remain vigilant at all times to ensure the safety of aircraft.
Spatial Awareness: Air traffic controllers must have excellent spatial awareness to accurately track the position and movement of multiple aircraft at the same time.
Multitasking: Air traffic controllers must be able to multitask effectively, processing and prioritising multiple tasks at once in a high-pressure environment.
Critical Thinking: Air traffic controllers must be able to analyse complex information, identify potential risks, and make quick decisions in high-stress situations.
Communication: Air traffic controllers must have exceptional communication skills to effectively communicate with pilots, ground crews, and other air traffic controllers using clear and concise language.
Teamwork: Air traffic controllers must be able to work well as part of a team, coordinating with other air traffic controllers to ensure the safe and efficient flow of air traffic.
Adaptability: Air traffic controllers must be able to adapt to changing situations and make quick decisions in response to unexpected events, such as weather disruptions or equipment failures.
Stress Management: Air traffic controllers must be able to manage high levels of stress and remain calm and focused during emergencies.
What are the steps towards becoming an air traffic controller?
Online application and assessments: First, complete the application form on NATS’ website; once your application has been accepted, you’ll need to take 9 online assessments related to your cognitive and decision making skills.
Situational judgement assessments: Once you’ve passed the first round of online assessments, you’ll be asked to complete an online situational judgement test and personality questionnaire.
Assessment Centre: Successful applicants are then invited to attend a 1-day assessment centre, where you’ll be evaluated on a range of criteria, including communication skills, teamworking, and problem-solving ability. You’ll take part in an interview and a group exercise on this day.
It’s important to note that if you fail to pass any of the above steps, you’ll need to wait 12 months before you can reapply, and you can only apply to become an Air Traffic Controller with NATS a maximum of 3 times.
Training: If selected, you’ll be accepted as a Trainee Air Traffic Controller and must complete a comprehensive college-based training programme that includes both theoretical and practical training. The training program typically lasts between 12 and 18 months and covers a range of topics, including air traffic control procedures, radar equipment, and communications. Once this is complete, you’ll receive a Student Air Traffic Control licence.
Licences and further training: After completing the training programme and receiving your Student Air Traffic Control licence, air traffic controllers must obtain the necessary licences and ratings to work in their specific area of control. This will involve hands-on training for a further length of time at one of the UK’s bases. Once you’ve completed your full operational training you’ll be issued a full Air Traffic Control Licence and be able to get to work!