Believe it or not, but a degree and work experience in aviation are not pre-requisites to getting into a career as an air traffic controller. Although it’s a very important and skilled profession involving the use of sophisticated communication equipment, the selection process is concerned with personal qualities and aptitudes above anything else.
With airspaces in the UK and overseas continuing to progress, there have never been more opportunities to start training in this exciting role.
If you feel this is a path that appeals to you, here’s what you’ll be up to each day…
Controlling the skies
A big part of your job will be to make sure all plane passengers reach the ground safely! If this isn’t already enough responsibility, you’ll also have to:
- Give directions to pilots and guide many different aircraft
- Oversee a particular area of the airport, such as aircraft currently on the ground
- Warn pilots about changes to weather conditions
- Aid landings and take offs on the runway(s), and make sure these occur on time
- Track all aircraft on radar and keep them a safe distance apart
- Provide the most efficient routes to aircraft
- Respond to emergency distress calls.
If you take up a position at an RAF base, you will also have to:
- help with maintenance and the preparation for emergencies
- communicate with civilian air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace.
Being an air traffic controller usually involves unsociable hours, as you’ll be expected to work shifts at day, night, weekends and public holidays. These shifts will cover around 37 to 40 hours each week.
Due to the nature of the work, you are only allowed to stay at your desk for up to two hours, before taking a mandatory half hour break. Since the job can often be pressurised and tiring, you’ll find the office environment is very comfortable to aid with this.
Preparing for take off
Before taking further steps toward this career, it’s a good idea to reflect and consider whether you have right skills and qualities required. These include:
- The ability to work efficiently and calmly under pressure
- Excellent concentration on tasks at all times
- Good communications skills, including giving clear instructions
- Technologically competent
- Interpreting a wide range of information
- Being able to check the accuracy of information quickly
- Good mathematics, teamwork and spatial skills
- A mature and responsible attitude
- Willing to be flexible with work.
To find whether you might have what it takes to become an air traffic controller, NATS provide a range of games to test a set of basic cognitive skills.
Getting off the ground
To become a fully qualified air traffic controller, you will need an air traffic control licence. To obtain this, you’ll need to complete an approved training course, either through:
To apply for one of these courses, you must:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be eligible to work in the UK
- Hold at least five GCSEs (A*-C)
Initially, it will involve a round of online tests, and if you pass these, you’ll be invited to an assessment centre for further tests and an interview.
Please note that if you apply for a course with NATS, you’ll need to be prepared to relocate to their training college in Fareham, Hampshire for several months.
If you are successful, you will also be asked to pass a medical examination (European Class 3) and security clearance before being offered a role.
There are several different types of air traffic controller, which can be broken down into:
- Approach control
- Aerodrome control
- Area control
Which role you end up in will depend partly on supply and demand at the time, as well as which one your skills are most suited to.
While training to become an air traffic controller, you will earn up to £12,000 a year, and if you apply for a course with NATS, this will include a benefits package including a pension scheme, voluntary benefits and family-friendly policies.
Students also get an additional £60 per week towards accommodation and have the chance of claiming a further £1,000 on completion of their training, subject to a set of conditions.
Once you are given your first trainee post at an air traffic control unit, this will rise to between £17,000 and £21,000 a year.
Training normally constitutes classroom teaching with practical exercises, some of which will involve the use of computer simulators. You will be assessed at certain intervals through oral tests and exams, and be expected to pass these in order to continue with your training.
Once you take up your trainee post, it will take around three years before you become fully qualified as an operational air traffic control officer. During this time, you will be supervised by an experienced instructor.
When you become a fully qualified air traffic controller, your salary will increase to somewhere between £32,000 and £36,000. As you gain more and more experience, you can expect to earn anything over £50,000, though the exact figure will depend on your location and the budget limit for shifts.
Once completely qualified, all air traffic controllers are required to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. This means you will continue to attend training courses either in-house or externally throughout your career. Useful news updates are available from the:
- Air Traffic Control (ATC) Network
- Air Traffic Management
- Airport International
- International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA)
- The Independent
- Euro News
Additional specialist courses and professional development programmes may allow you to apply for planning, training and management positions, and help you advance your career. As you gain more experience, you may have the chance to move to a larger airport, e.g. Gatwick or Heathrow.
NATS (a public-private partnership) operates many sites across the UK and the rest of the world, so employment opportunities once you complete your training will not be scarce. You will find job openings at the NATS control centres located in Swanwick and Prestwick, and there are also opportunities in the UK’s airport control towers. Some are managed by NATS, while others are run by private companies or the airport itself.
Roles may also be available with the Royal Airforce (RAF), and some airports choose to employ air traffic controllers directly, or through privately owned companies such as SafeSkys Ltd.
You can search for vacancies at the following places:
- Aviation Jobsearch
- NATS Careers
- Serco (international vacancies)
- Individual airport websites, e.g. London City Airport, Manchester
- National press/newspapers.
If you’re still interested in air traffic control career after reading this post, then it’s time to get cracking with your application (and don’t let the rigorous selection process put you off!). Although it is a demanding job with heavy responsibility, you will find each day different, challenging and rewarding.
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