By Laura Cronin 19 Apr 2023 6 min read

What are the main responsibilities of an air traffic controller?

Air traffic controllers are essential professionals responsible for ensuring the safe and efficient movement of aircraft within their airspace. They are responsible for the smooth and orderly flow of air traffic, reducing delays, and preventing accidents.

According to the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), the main responsibilities of an air traffic controller include the following:

  • Providing clearances and instructions to pilots: Air traffic controllers are responsible for communicating with pilots and providing them with clearance for takeoff, landing, and other movements in the airspace. They must ensure that pilots follow the instructions and guidelines provided to maintain a safe distance between aircraft.
  • Monitoring aircraft movements: Air traffic controllers use sophisticated technology to monitor the position, altitude, and speed of aircraft in the airspace. They must also stay aware of weather conditions, air traffic flow, and any other factors that may affect the movement of aircraft.
  • Managing traffic flow: Air traffic controllers work to maintain a smooth flow of air traffic, reducing delays and congestion. They may need to reroute aircraft or hold them on the ground or in the air to maintain a safe distance between aircraft.
  • Providing emergency services: Air traffic controllers are trained to respond to emergencies and may provide assistance to pilots during emergencies such as engine failures, medical emergencies, or other critical situations.
  • Communicating with other air traffic control centres: Air traffic controllers must work closely with other control centres to ensure the safe and efficient movement of aircraft between different regions.
  • Maintaining records: Air traffic controllers must keep detailed records of all aircraft movements and communications, including flight plans, clearances, and any incidents or emergencies.

The role of an air traffic controller requires a high level of skill, training, and attention to detail. NATS notes that air traffic controllers must undergo rigorous training and continuous professional development to ensure they maintain their skills and stay up-to-date with the latest technology and procedures.

Air traffic controllers must also be able to work well under pressure and be able to make quick decisions. They must have excellent communication skills and be able to work effectively as part of a team. Shift work can also be expected as flights are running 24/7, so there needs to be staff on hand to cover these at all times.

In addition to the above responsibilities, air traffic controllers must also adhere to strict safety procedures to prevent accidents and maintain the safety of passengers and crew. NATS notes that safety is the top priority for air traffic controllers, and they must be vigilant at all times to ensure the safe movement of aircraft.

A few other facts about working as an air traffic controller:

  • Air traffic controllers can either be based in control towers at airports, or in the main regional control centres. In the UK, the control centres are based in Swanwick and Prestwick.
  • The expected salary for a fully qualified controller is around £37k-£41k, with potential salaries for senior controllers rising to £100k+.
  • Air traffic controllers rely on their eyes to see the aircraft outside the windows in front of them, just as much as relying on their screens.
  • Breaks are key - air traffic controllers have to be alert and focused at all times to make sure they are doing their job safely. Regular breaks are important to help air traffic controllers avoid fatigue.
  • Air traffic controllers use a unique language when communicating with each other, called Radiotelephony (RT). This ensures that there is consistency no matter what the native language of the controller or the pilot who they’re talking to. 

Learn more about the steps to becoming an air traffic controller in the UK, and the different types of air traffic controller roles that exist, here.

Explore the latest air traffic controller jobs here.