Air traffic controller

An air traffic controller


Air traffic controllers assist pilots by providing height, speed, and course information. They assist pilots in facilitating a safe take-off and landing of aircrafts. They are responsible for maintaining a secure and orderly aircraft movement along major air routes in the sky and around airports. They control air traffic in and within the vicinity of airports according to established procedures and policies to prevent collisions and minimise delays arising from traffic congestion.

Air traffic controllers typically perform the following duties:

  • Coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that planes stay safe distances apart.
  • Coordinate the arrival and departure of airplanes.
  • Issue landing and takeoff instructions to pilots.
  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft using radar equipment.
  • Authorize flight path changes.
  • Provide weather updates to pilots.
  • Alert airport response staff in the event of an aircraft emergency.
  • Direct planes efficiently to minimize delays.
  • Manage the flow of airplanes in and out of the airport, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor airplanes as they travel through the skies.
  • Manage multiple airplanes.
  • Check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of planes on the runways and other parts of the airport.
  • Sequence the arrival and departure of airplanes, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and use radar equipment to monitor flight paths.
  • Provide pilots with information on weather conditions.
  • Monitor airplanes once they leave an airport’s airspace.
  • Look for traffic patterns that could create bottlenecks in the system.
  • Keep traffic levels manageable for the airport and for en route controllers.
  • Move all aircraft safely and efficiently through their assigned sector of airspace.
  • Communicate with the pilots of aircraft using a push-to-talk radiotelephony system.
  • Control aircraft within the airport’s immediate vicinity and use visual observation from the airport tower.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to air traffic controller:

flight controller
air traffic control officer
air controller
air traffic controller instructor
controller of air traffic
air traffic control specialists

Working conditions

Most air traffic controllers work in control towers, approach control facilities, or en route centers. Many tower controllers and approach and departure controllers work near large airports. En route controllers work in secure office buildings across the country, which typically are not located at airports.

Most controllers work in semidark rooms. The aircraft they control appear as points of light moving across their radar screens, and a well-lit room would make it difficult to see the screens correctly.

Air traffic controllers must remain focused and react quickly to frequently changing conditions. Being responsible for the safety of aircraft and passengers may be stressful and exhausting.

Work Schedules

Most air traffic controllers work full-time.

Major airports may operate control towers on a 24-hour basis. Controllers who work at these facilities may work day, evening, or night shifts that include weekends and holidays. Small airports or less busy ones may have towers that do not operate around the clock. Controllers at these facilities may have standard work schedules.

Minimum qualifications

The typical educational requirement for air traffic controller candidates is to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. The courses in these programs train the candidates in aviation weather, clearances, airspace, federal regulations, chart reading, and other related topics. Candidates must complete a biographical assessment to evaluate their personality fitness. Furthermore, they must also pass a yearly physical exam, a job performance exam twice a year, and periodic drug testing.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Air traffic controller is a Skill level 3 occupation.

Air traffic controller career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to air traffic controller.

second officer
aviation data communications manager
helicopter pilot
private pilot

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of air traffic controller. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of air traffic controller with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

airspace manager
air traffic instructor
aviation communications and frequency coordination manager
aviation surveillance and code coordination manager
cabin crew instructor

Essential knowledge and skills

Essential knowledge

This knowledge should be acquired through learning to fulfill the role of air traffic controller.

  • Airport planning: Know airport planning for different types of aircrafts; use that information to mobilise resources and people in order to handle the aircrafts while they are in the airport.
  • Aircraft flight control systems: Know the setting, features and operation of aircraft flight control systems. Manage flight control surfaces, cockpit controls, connections, and operating mechanisms required to control the flight direction of an aircraft. Operate aircraft engine controls in order to change aircraft speed.
  • Pre-flight procedures for ifr flights: Understand pre-flight duties while preparing an IFR flight; read and comprehend flight manual.
  • Electrical systems used in transportation: Understand the functioning of electrical systems, their specifications, and application in operations and systems for the transportation of freight and people.
  • Electronics: The functioning of electronic circuit boards, processors, chips, and computer hardware and software, including programming and applications. Apply this knowledge to ensure electronic equipment runs smoothly.
  • Air transport law: Know air transport laws and regulations. Due to the nature of aviation, knowledge of air transport laws partially overlaps with knowledge of international law.
  • Air traffic control operations: Understand the tasks performed by air traffic controllers, including Interaction and effective communication between aircraft and air traffic controllers; execution of follow-up activities, and ensuring smooth operations during flights.
  • Celestial navigation: Understand the science of celestial navigation and position fixing by using specialised measuring equipment.
  • Aviation meteorology: Understand aviation meteorology to deal with the impact of weather on air traffic management (ATM). Understand how thorough changes in pressure and temperature values at airports can create variations in head and tail-wind components, and may impose low visibility operating conditions. Knowledge of aviation meteorology can help to reduce negative impact on the ATM system by diminishing disruption and the consequent problems of disturbed flow rates, lost capacity and induced additional costs.
  • Common aviation safety regulations: The body of legislation and regulations that apply to the field of civil aviation at regional, national, European and International levels. Understand that regulations aimed at protecting citizens at all times in civil aviation; ensure that operators, citizens, and organisations comply with these rules.
  • Electronic communication: Data communication performed through digital means such as computers, telephone or e-mail.

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of air traffic controller.

  • Assist during take off and landing: Assist captain in take-off and landing procedures by operating communication equipment.
  • Use meteorological information: Use and interpret meteorological information for operations dependent on climatic conditions. Use this information to provide advise on safe operations in relation to weather conditions.
  • Give instructions to staff: Give instructions to subordinates by employing various communication techniques. Adjust communication style to the target audience in order to convey instructions as intended.
  • Possess visual literacy: Interpret charts, maps, graphics, and other pictorial presentations used in place of the written word. The graphics used vary from process to process; therefore, the professional must have sufficient knowledge of the field in order to follow and use the information presented.
  • Operate airport control tower: Operate the airport control tower, which is crucial to the safe taxiing, take-off and landing of aircraft.
  • Use different communication channels: Make use of various types of communication channels such as verbal, handwritten, digital and telephonic communication with the purpose of constructing and sharing ideas or information.
  • Ensure public safety and security: Implement the relevant procedures, strategies and use the proper equipment to promote local or national security activities for the protection of data, people, institutions, and property.
  • Carry out navigational calculations: Solve mathematical problems to achieve safe navigation.
  • Have spatial awareness: Be aware of your position and the space around you. Understand the relationship of objects around you when there is a change of position.
  • Stay alert: Stay focused and alert at all times; react quickly in the case of unexpected events. Concentrate and do not get distracted performing a task over a long period of time.
  • Use air traffic services document: Utilise Air Traffic Services document to prevent collisions between manoeuvring aircraft; ensure orderly flow of air traffic.
  • Read 3D displays: Read 3D-displays and understand the information they provide on positions, distances, and other parameters.
  • Assist in the conducting of flight checks: Assist pre-flight and in-flight checks in order to detect problems and provide solutions to them, together with the flight captain, the first pilot or the inflight engineer.
  • Maintain concentration for long periods: Stay concentrated over a long period of time in order to make correct judgements and appropriate decisions.
  • Apply airport standards and regulations: Know and apply the accepted standards and regulations for European airports. Apply knowledge to enforce airport rules, regulations, and the Airport Safety Plan.
  • Handle stressful situations: Deal with and manage highly stressful situations in the workplace by following adequate procedures, communicating in a quiet and effective manner, and remaining level-headed when taking decisions.
  • Follow given instructions: Follow instructions to achieve goals and meet deadlines.
  • Monitor aviation meteorology: Monitor and interpret the information provided by weather stations to anticipate conditions that may affect airports and flights.
  • Apply technical communication skills: Explain technical details to non-technical customers, stakeholders, or any other interested parties in a clear and concise manner.
  • Operate radar equipment: Operate radar screens and other radar equipment; ensure that aircraft fly at a safe distance from one another.
  • Comply with checklists: Follow checklists and ensure compliance with all the items included in them.
  • Analyse work-related written reports: Read and comprehend job-related reports, analyse the content of reports and apply findings to daily work operations.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of air traffic controller. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Perform multiple tasks at the same time: Execute multiple tasks at the same time, being aware of key priorities.
  • Act reliably: Proceed in a way that one can be relied on or depended on.
  • Show confidence: Demonstrate degrees of maturity by fully understanding one’s own qualities and abilities which can serve as sources of confidence in different situations.
  • Have computer literacy: Utilise computers, IT equipment, and modern day technology efficiently.
  • Tolerate stress: Maintain a peaceful mental state and effective performance under pressure or adverse circumstances.

ISCO group and title

3154 – Air traffic controllers

  1. Air traffic controller – ESCO
  2. Air Traffic Controller : Occupational Outlook Handbook – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Air Traffic Controller Job Description –
  4. Air Traffic Controller Job Description – Diversity Jobs
  5. Featured image: By Petar Marjanovic – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Last updated on March 20, 2023