What is an Air Traffic Controller?

An Air Traffic Controller is an individual responsible for directing aircraft in an orderly manner within the global air traffic control system. These individuals are often referred to as controllers, air controllers, and flight controllers. They are highly trained professionals with very specialized skills.

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What does an Air Traffic Controller do?

Air Traffic Controllers direct aircraft safely through their assigned flight paths, involving a specific sector of airspace. Each sector is controlled by at least one Air Traffic Controller often through the use of radar, which gives a greater volume of traffic to the sector.

An Aerodome controller, also known as a Tower Controller, is responsible for controlling aircraft within the direct airspace of an airport. These controllers use visual observation from the tower as well as sometimes utilizing radar approach control positioning where needed at high volume facilities.

Aerodome Controllers work in a group of positions including Flight Data, Ground, Local, and Approach. Each position holds its own specific role in the safe arrival and departure of aircraft.

Flight Data/Clearance controllers will issue flight plan clearances before aircraft taxi the runway. Unlike the other positions, Data/Clearance will only involve departing aircraft, thus limiting their traffic to just half of the overall traffic of the sector.

Ground Control is responsible for issuing safe taxi instructions to the aircraft for movement on ramps as well as other non-movement areas of the ground. As the name states, this position deals with aircraft on the ground, either arriving or leaving the sector.

Local, also known as Tower Control, will issue instructions for the safe and orderly takeoff and landing of the aircraft in the sector. These controllers also issue authorization to aircraft for movements on or across the runways, preventing accidents through radar and visual control.

Approach Controllers are responsible for issuing the instructions to aircraft in the sector who are preparing to land. This involves directing them in a safe and consistent manner, as well as stacking them at various holding designations if necessary. All this must be done in a timely manner due to schedules and traffic needs.

In the military, an Air Traffic Controller will most likely be an enlisted person chosen and trained for the position, although exact terms will vary from country to country. In some countries the military is responsible for all of the air traffic control, whereas some countries have both military and civilian airspace controllers. Looking back through history, the role of an Air Traffic Controller was traditionally a government position. However, over the years several countries have moved on to privatize the system, making Air Traffic Control a public position.

What does it take to be an Air Traffic Controller?

There are many factors involved with what it takes to be an Air Traffic Controller. Education, physical health, mental health, and stress management capability are just a few of the most common requirements needed for this profession. Education and training for such a position can take anywhere from six months to many years, making the median age for an applicant around twenty years old.

The majority of countries have Air Traffic Control schools operated by experienced Air Traffic Controllers. These controllers train students from enrolment to testing and maintain a high standard for each enrolee. Five ratings are given to each enrolee; Area, Area Radar, Approach, Approach Radar, and Aerodome. How many areas a person will be allowed to train in depends on their country. The United States allows enrolees to train in several similar positions within an area.

After training, the Air Traffic Controllers are placed in a new position and begin working on a sector. They must undergo a period of further training in regards to specific area procedures for the sector of their work unit. Most of the training is done in live situations commonly known as "On The Job Training". This training is done with qualified and trained mentors and On the Job Instructors who are also connected to the sector to help guide the new Controllers and to take over in the case of an emergency.

This training lasts anywhere from months to years much like the previous training and depending on how much traffic the assigned sector is known to receive. Only after they have successfully completed a full training program will they be allowed control of their own sector without the constant aid of others.

What is the workplace of an Air Traffic Controller like?

The workplace of an Air Traffic Controller varies, but is generally based at an airport in their country, whether it be civilian or military operated. The working conditions are highly stressful and as such strong medical and mental regulations are enforced upon employees to ensure the most healthy and highly trained individuals are placed in these positions.

How much does an Air Traffic Controller earn?

An excellent salary is one of the strongest reasons for becoming an Air Traffic Controller, as is early retirement. The average salary of a Controller does vary by country and region, however the median salary is $140,000 in the United States and up to £90,000 in the United Kingdom.

Learn more about being an Air Traffic Controller