How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

Responsible for managing aircraft of all shapes and sizes through each and every aspect of their flight, it is the duty of an air traffic controller to prioritise safety alongside timeliness and organisation. Employing the use of highly sophisticated navigational, surveillance and communicational tools, air traffic controllers work from the ground to relay essential information, advice and instructions to airborne pilots via radio.

Typically considered to work exclusively from control towers at airports, the majority of ATC’s actually perform their essential roles from area control centres. Responsible for the entire en-route stage of an aircraft’s journey, the job involves using radar to keep track of exact position- and ensure the craft takes the safest and most efficient route possible.

As well as applying to area controllers, those who monitor aircraft during a flight, the term air traffic controller also encompasses approach controllers. Essentially, these individuals are responsible for managing craft as they reach their destination. Providing initial clearance for the aircraft to approach the airport, they are also required to sequence arrivals in order to create the most efficient order for landing.

As an Air Traffic Controller, you can expect to fill one of three main roles:

- Area controller – based in a regional control centre, tracking and guiding aircraft safely through your sector

- Approach controller – managing aircraft as they near the airport, and arranging them into the correct landing order

- Aerodrome controller – working from a control tower, relaying landing instructions to pilots as they descend.



Pay Rate (Per Anum)

Trainee Controller (Attending College)

Approx. £10,000

Trainee Controller (Full Time On-the-Job)

£15,000 - £19,000

Fully Qualified Controller

Up to £50,000

Senior Controllers/Suervisors

Up to £91,000










Entry requirements and qualifications

All of those interested in a career in air traffic control will no doubt be thrilled to learn that a degree or HND is not strictly necessary. Whilst a higher education qualification that displays technical numeracy skills will certainly not harm your chances, the key thing looked for by employers and trainers in this field is aptitude- plain and simple.

That’s right, good old fashioned suitability is given preference over any qualification. However, it is worth noting that candidates wishing to gain employment of this kind in the UK will need at least 5 GCSE’s (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and Maths.

This is a highly specific role, so pre-entry experience is not required as full training is given on the job. A background in office-based work, communications or customer service will probably go a long way to helping ones chances though…

The route to take

The vast majority of UK candidates seeking employment in this field are required to gain training through the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), a body which carries its own unique set of requirements for entry. Partly competency based, they are listed on the organisations website as:

  •          ATC 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;
  •          team working.

The NATS also requires candidates to be of a certain level of health, requesting that they pass a CAA UK Class 3 medical certificate. If a hopeful passes their medical, but fails to meet all of the aforementioned requirements, it is possible for them to complete training with another service provider- and apply for relevant jobs afterwards.

Given the high-pressure nature of the role, the ability to concentrate and think logically for a sustained period of time is extremely important. As well as this, being able to respond quickly during an emergency, communicate effectively and display a certain level of confidence with technology- are all paramount attributes for an individual seeking employment in this field. 

Image Source: Telegraph