The main route to becoming an air traffic controller is through a training programme with NATS, the main air navigation service provider in the United Kingdom.
NATS offers a range of training opportunities, including:
- apprenticeships for school leavers
- placement years for current undergraduates
- graduate training programmes
You will need five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) including English and Maths to be eligible for an entry level apprenticeship, or a good first degree to apply for a graduate training programme.
Competition for places is high and the application process is rigorous, comprising several stages of assessments online and in person to test your judgement and cognitive and decision-making skills.
If you pass all the assessments, you’ll be invited to join NATS as a Trainee Air Traffic Controller, where you will spend between a year and 18 months studying an intensive course combining theory and practical based sessions.
You will then be posted to an airport or control centre to continue with practical training and work towards gaining an air traffic controller license, following which you will be eligible to work as an air traffic controller.
The entire training process can take around three years. You will also need to be fit enough to meet Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) medical standards.
Global ATS, the UK’s only other CAA approved training provider, also offers self-funded or sponsored training places.
What can I expect as an air traffic controller?
Your responsibilities will vary depending which area of air traffic control you work in. There are three specialisms:
- Area controllers, who are usually based at a regional control centre. They track and guide aircraft at higher altitudes and are responsible for aircraft in the climb, descent and en-route phases of the flight
- Approach controllers, who manage aircraft as they approach an airport, ensuring the most efficient landing sequences. Approach controllers may also manage flights crossing the airspace around their airport, as well as aircraft that have just departed in their initial flight phase
- Aerodrome controllers, who are typically based in a control tower and responsible for the safety and movement of aircraft around an airfield and for issuing clearances to take off and land.
Whichever area you work in, being part of a team responsible for the safe air transport of thousands of passengers every day means that you will need to be:
- highly conscientious and motivated
- able to concentrate for long periods of time
- confident and calm under pressure
- quick to process information and respond in emergency situations.
You will also need excellent planning and decision-making skills, confidence with technology and good communication skills.
You will work on a shift basis and may have to move to different locations depending on company needs.
Air traffic controllers are subject to the Rail and Transport Safety Act, which forbids any drug use and sets strict limits on blood alcohol levels. As such, you may occasionally have to undergo random drug and alcohol testing.
Related courses at City
Whatever your level of interest in becoming an air traffic controller, City's courses can help you take one step closer to a career, develop specialisms that'll set you apart from the field or broaden your horizons with study in related subjects.
Who can I work for as an air traffic controller?
NATS is the sole employer of area controllers who work on en-route services in the UK’s area control centres in Swanwick and Prestwick.
NATS is also a major employer of approach and aerodrome controllers, but there are also opportunities with privately owned air traffic control companies.
Some regional airports also employ controllers directly.
What about air traffic control work experience?
NATS offers paid placement years for current undergraduates. You could also apply for a paid six-week internship.
As full training is provided, work experience within an air traffic control setting is not essential, although experience of working in customer service or communications environment might be useful.
What are my prospects as an air traffic controller?
As you gain experience and develop your skills, you may have opportunities to progress to supervision or management roles, taking responsibility for a team of controllers.
It might also be possible for you to move into a role assessing and training new recruits.
Learning and professional development is vital to a career in air traffic control. Besides the mandatory industry training courses, you could consider building on your knowledge and developing your management skills with a postgraduate degree.
The industry-relevant master’s programmes in Aviation Management at City, University of London are approved by the Royal Aeronautical Society and designed to fit around a full-time working schedule.
Covering a range of key industry areas, our master’s degrees will give you the opportunity to update your knowledge and build a lifelong network of peers.