Air traffic controllers ensure that aircraft fly safely and efficiently through UK airspace. They guide and advise pilots at take-off, during the flight, as they approach the airport and when they land. They are sometimes called air traffic control officers (ATCOs).
You could be:
- using radar to make sure all aircraft are a safe distance apart and following flight plans
- giving instructions and advice to pilots by radio
- getting position reports from pilots
- checking flight plans and making calculations on computer
- making decisions based on types of aircraft and weather conditions
- dealing with changes in flight plans due to bad weather conditions, security alerts or other emergencies.
You could work as one of three types of air traffic controller:
- Area/terminal controller – you would be responsible for aircraft flying in one particular piece of airspace, keeping in constant radio contact with the pilots, tracking and guiding them
- Approach controller – you would deal with planes preparing to approach for landing, putting them into correct sequence for landing and guiding pilots while they land the aircraft. You might also link them to the guidance system for automatic landing when weather conditions are poor
- Aerodrome controller – you would deal with planes once they are about to land, guiding aircraft through landings, take-offs and handling their movements on the ground, to and from the runway.
The figures below are only a guide. Actual pay rates may vary, depending on:
- where you work
- the size of the company or organisation you work for
- the demand for the job.
Trainees on the NATS training scheme earn a basic salary of £17,000 (with benefits) a year while attending college and receive a weekly accommodation payment of £60. While on practical training in an operational unit the salary is between £19,423 and £23,307 a year (depending on where you are posted).
Once qualified, your salary rises to between £37,014 and £41,253 a year. Experienced ATCOs at certain units can earn from £100,000 a year (inclusive of shift pay).
- You might work for National Air Traffic Services (NATS), an individual airport, aircraft manufacturer, local authority or the Royal Air Force.
- You would work in an area control centre or a control tower.
- You would sit in front of a radar screen or computer.
- You would have to wear a headset.
- You would be required to work shifts (called 'watches'), including night shifts.
- You would also have to work weekends and public holidays.
- It is a busy environment and can be stressful.
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- To enter as a trainee with NATS, you must be over 18 and have at least 5 subjects at National 5, including English and Maths.
- Entry requirements for other employers vary; some recruit only fully qualified and experienced controllers, whilst others ask for at least 3 Highers as well as the subjects at National 5.
- Candidates with fewer qualifications may get in if they have experience in military flying, military air traffic control or commercial flying.
- NATS recruit on an ongoing basis for courses starting throughout the year. You can apply using the online application form on their careers website (see below). If eligible you will be asked to complete two online tests.
- If successful you will be asked along to an initial assessment centre day to undertake a series of tests. If successful, this will be followed by another assessment day.
- If you are successful on the second assessment day you will undergo security checks and have a medical examination. You will need good eyesight and normal colour vision together with good hearing and good general health.
- Although you can say where you would prefer to be posted you must be ready to work in any part of the country.
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What Does it Take?
You need to be:
- quick thinking and flexible
- able to see and think in three dimensions (spatially aware)
- able to check complex data quickly and accurately
- prepared to work shifts.
You need to have:
- good teamwork skills
- IT skills and the ability to use computer systems
- excellent concentration over long periods
- the ability to stay calm under pressure
- the ability to communicate clearly and effectively
- a clear speaking voice
- quick reactions to new and unexpected situations.
- NATS basic training last 2 months, after which you are told whether you will follow the path of an area controller or an aerodrome/approach controller.
- NATS staff training takes place at the NATS Corporate and Technical Centre in Whiteley, and includes practical experience at airports and air traffic centres. It is salaried and lasts for around 9 months for Area Trainees and Terminal Control Trainees, 5 months for Aerodrome Trainees and 8 months for Aerodrome/Approach Trainees.
- A considerable amount of legislation has to be learned during training so be prepared to do plenty of study in your own time.
- Further training is on the job at a NATS centre as an air traffic controller (training and development). The length of time depends on how quickly you progress.
- It usually takes around 3 years to become a licensed ATCO.
- After several years of suitable experience, you might gain promotion as an operational watch supervisor, overseeing and monitoring the work of other ATCOs.
- You can also become a trainer of new ATCOs.
- There may be some opportunities to work overseas.
- Entry to this career is competitive – only 20 applicants are successful to get through to training from over 3,000 every year. Of those, 15 become validated to work on live aerospace.
- There are around 1,900 Air Traffic Controllers employed by NATS. They ensure the safe movement of over 2.2 million flights a year in the UK.
- The main centres for work in air traffic control are Prestwick and Swanwick (near Southampton), although jobs are also available at airports throughout the UK.
The following organisations may be able to provide further information.
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