If you think that air traffic controllers are the lollipop ladies of the sky, you’re in for quite a shock! These roles are incredibly challenging and require people with expert technical knowledge, organisational skills and complete focus at all times.
These guys are responsible for ensuring the smooth and safe passage of aircraft on heavy-traffic routes in and around airports. Essentially, they coordinate the take-offs and landings of several aircraft simultaneously.
They also provide pilots with detailed in-flight information on their approach, speed, trajectory and altitude.
Traffic controllers are grouped into three main categories:
1) Area controllers who handle air traffic on major routes
2) Approach controllers who guide air traffic in and out of airports
3) Aerodrome controllers who handle traffic upon landing and provide guidance to aircraft that are taxiing into and out of terminals prior to a take-off.
If you become an air traffic controller, you’ll be responsible for maintaining radio contact with aircraft, providing information on weather and visibility conditions.
You will also track their route using radar technologies and provide them with guidance when necessary.
Furthermore, you’ll be directing aircraft from the terminal to the runway and from the runway to take-off and vice versa during landing.
You’ll be using your expert knowledge to guide aircraft so that they can reach the optimum altitude, speed and cruising level.
When things get hectic, you’ll be on hand to manage peak traffic loads and prepare the best sequence for the movement of multiple aircraft at the same time.
Finally, you will take charge in the event of emergencies and unforeseen complications and make sure that the aircraft in your jurisdiction can take off, fly and land safely.
Salary & benefits
During the training period, trainee controllers earn an annual salary of £10,000 to £12,000, but you’ll also get a weekly accommodation allowance too.
Upon successful completion of your training and being assigned to your first post, the salary will rise to between £17,000 and £21,000. After you’ve got around two years of experience, your earnings can rise dramatically to between £45,000 and £55,000.
Salaries for traffic controllers based at major and large airports are higher and controllers with between ten and 15 years of experience can earn around £60,000 to £70,000 a year.
Area controllers earn around £90,000 and senior controllers with managerial responsibilities can earn up to £100,000.
Working hours and weekly schedules for air traffic controllers are often erratic, involving shifts on a 24/7 basis, including weekends and national holidays.
These are, however, compensated by complimentary days off during the week. At work, controllers follow a two-hour ‘on’ and 30-minute ‘off’ rotation, since the job requires total focus and fixed vision on a radar screen whilst on duty.
The minimum requirement for air traffic controllers is five GCSEs (grades A-C), including maths and English. Graduates or candidates with an HND from any discipline can also apply.
You will need good overall physical and mental fitness, clear eyesight (small corrections through contact lenses or glasses are allowed), finely-tuned spatial awareness, patience, the ability to handle pressure and fantastic communication skills.
Annual recruitment intakes are conducted in four batches and the selection procedure includes practical assessments and interviews.
Entry-level training is conducted by the College of Air Traffic Control (ATCO), under the National Air Traffic Services’ (NATS) training scheme.
Training & progression
Training depends on your target specialism; each of the three controller categories has a separate training path and programme. Area controller training runs for a period of 11 months, while aerodrome controllers train for seven months. Approach controllers undertake the same seven month training period as aerodrome controllers and then do an extra three months.
After introductory training, traffic controllers are appointed on a probationary period, ranging from 18 to 24 months, followed by a practical exam. On successfully passing the exam, air traffic controllers are awarded a certificate of competence from the Civil Aviation Authority.
Some air traffic controllers progress and do less hands-on practical work; instead, they might manage a team or focus their efforts on training the next batch of air traffic controllers.