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Air traffic controller

  • Hours

    40 per week

  • Starting salary

    £32,500 + per year

Air traffic controllers help airline pilots to take off and land safely. They also make sure that aircraft travelling through UK airspace are kept a safe distance apart. If you want a varied and challenging job, this could be just what you are looking for.

To be a controller, you'll need the ability to work calmly under pressure and be able to concentrate. It’s vital that you have excellent communication skills to give clear instructions.

You will need to be 18 or over, eligible to work in the UK and have a good standard of education to apply for training. It takes up to three years to fully qualify.


Work activities

You would work in one of the following roles:

  • area controller – based in a regional control centre, tracking and guiding aircraft safely through your sector
  • approach controller – managing aircraft as they near the airport, and arranging them into the correct landing order
  • aerodrome controller – working from a control tower, relaying landing instructions to pilots as they descend

The aerodrome role often includes ground control duties, for instance directing aircraft on the runway after landing and before take off, and to and from parking stands and holding areas.

An extremely important part of your work would be to respond to emergency distress calls. For example, this might include instructing and guiding a light aircraft to safety that has lost its way in bad weather.

Working hours and conditions

You would normally work 40 hours a week on a shift basis, including days, nights, weekends and public holidays. During a shift, you might guide aircraft for up to two hours, followed by a half-hour break.

You would be based in a flight control centre or airport control tower, spending most of your time monitoring aircraft and talking to pilots.


A trainee controller at college earns around £12,000 a year. Once you are posted to your first unit, you can earn between £17,000 and £21,000.

As a fully qualified air traffic controller, you can earn between £32,500 and £36,000 a year, rising to over £50,000 with experience.

Salaries depend on where you work and shift allowances.

Figures are intended as a guideline only.

Entry requirements

You will need an air traffic control licence to become a fully qualified controller, which you can gain by completing an approved training course, for example through National Air Traffic Services (NATS).

To do a trainee controller's course, you must:

  • be at least 18 years old when you apply (a full licence is only issued at age 20 or over)
  • be eligible to work in the UK
  • have a minimum of five GCSEs (grades A*-C), including English and maths

The application process involves a number of initial online tests. If you get through these, you'll be invited to an assessment centre for further tests and interview. You will also be expected to pass a medical examination and get security clearance before being offered a job.

You can see an infographic, showing the different stages of the selection process on the NATS website. You can also try out some online games on their site to see how your skills match up to those needed in this job.

  • NATS (Opens new window) (Becoming a controller)
  • NATS (Opens new window) (Games)

You may be considered for training if you have relevant aviation experience as a military air traffic controller, or military or commercial pilot.

You can find more details about this career, eligibility and how to apply on the NATS website.

  • NATS (Opens new window) (trainee controllers)

People 1st is the Sector Skills Council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism and their website, Careers That Move, gives more information and advice about jobs in the passenger transport and travel industries.

Training and development

Initial training lasts several months and takes place at the NATS training college at Fareham in Hampshire. You'd be expected to relocate there for the duration of the training programme.

The course combines classroom instruction with practical exercises. Computer simulators recreate real air traffic situations for practical training. Assessors will check your progress and you must pass every part of the course.

After completing your college-based training, you then apply for a trainee position with an air traffic control unit at an area centre or regional airport control tower. NATS have two area centres, one at Swanwick in Hampshire and one at Prestwick in Ayrshire, overseeing UK airspace. They also cover 15 airports around the UK.

As a unit trainee, you would work towards qualifying as an operational air traffic control officer. An experienced instructor would supervise your work-based training. It takes around three years to fully qualify.

You may have the chance of promotion to higher grades by taking specialist in-house courses and professional development programmes. These could lead to training, planning and management positions.

Skills, interests and qualities

To become an air traffic controller, you will need to have:

  • the ability to work calmly under pressure
  • the ability to concentrate on tasks
  • excellent communication skills to give clear instructions
  • confidence when working with technology
  • the ability to interpret information from different sources
  • the ability to check information quickly and accurately
  • good maths skills
  • good spatial awareness
  • a responsible attitude
  • good teamworking skills
  • a willingness to work flexibly

More information

Careers That Move (Opens new window)

National Air Traffic Services (Opens new window)



In total, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) has over 40 sites in the UK, employing staff. There may also be opportunities to work overseas.

You may also find opportunities with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

With experience, you could move into training and assessing new controllers, or become an operational watch supervisor or unit manager.

You can find contact details of UK airports on the Airport Guides website. The NATS site has further details about working for them and what they do.

Job market information

This section gives you an overview of the job area that this profile belongs to. You can use it to work out your next career move. It can help if you’re looking for a job now or want to do some further training.

The 'Market statistics' charts are based on figures from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The list of job vacancies under 'Apply for jobs' is from the Universal Jobmatch database. The vacancies are not from the National Careers Service.

Median income: Business
Avg Inc
UK Sector
27017 32327
Gender: Business
Female Male
44 56
Working pattern: Business
Part-time Full-time Self-employed
16 74 10
Gaps in sector due to skills shortages: Business
This sector All vacancies
30 23
Employment forecast: Business
Forecast Employment Figures
Year Predicted nos. employed
2014 2059000
2015 2084000
2016 2111000
2017 2145000
2018 2180000
2019 2216000
2020 2252000

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