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What is an Air Traffic Controller?

Also known as: Air Traffic Control Officer, Air Traffic Control Professional, Flight Controller, Air Controller, Air Traffic Control Specialist.

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.

How to Become an Air Traffic Controller

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.

Air traffic controllers must have certain qualities; excellent problem solving, communication and decision-making skills, as well as multi-tasking skills. They typically deal with a great amount of stress and need to be able to concentrate when there are many things happening around them. In order to prove they are capable of handling the responsibilities that are needed in this career, an air traffic controller must pass a rigorous assessment and training program.

Types of Air Traffic Controllers:

Aerodrome 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. Aerodrome 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 Controller
- 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.

- 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 authorizations to aircraft for movements on or across the runways, preventing accidents through radar and visual control.

Approach Controller
- is 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.

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How to become an Air Traffic Controller

There are no formal educational requirements in Canada for becoming an air traffic controller, other than passing the Air Traffic Controller assessments and interview. If you live in the United States, you must obtain an air traffic management degree from an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certified school, achieve a qualifying score on the FAA test, and further complete a training course at the FAA academy. If you have any previous air traffic control experience (eg. military training), you may not need to complete the FAA educational requirements.

After mandatory training is complete, an air traffic controller 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 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.



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Further Reading

  • What It's Like To Be an Air Traffic Controller www.cnn.com

    Stress is always part of the job as controllers have the awesome responsibility of juggling various planes landing, taxiing and taking off at the airport.

  • I Want To Be an Air Traffic Controller. What Will My Salary Be? www.theglobeandmail.com

    There are no traffic signs or stop lights in the air, so the air traffic controllers are organizing the flow of the airplanes within the airport and between airports.

  • Meet a Controller www.nats.aero

    Ultimately, there’s no one better qualified to talk about the role of Air Traffic Controller than the people who are already doing the job.

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Become an Air Traffic Controller