Air Traffic Controller

Job Description:

Air traffic controllers give information and advice to airline pilots to help them take off and land safely and on time.

Job Category:
Automotive & Aviation

What you will do:

Your tasks will vary depending on which type of controller you become. There are 3 types:

  • area controller – in a regional control centre, tracking and guiding aircraft through your sector
  • approach controller – managing aircraft as they approach the airport
  • aerodrome controller – in a control tower, helping pilots land and park, and line up for take-off (teamwork)

Air traffic controllers also respond to emergency distress calls, guiding planes to the runway and helping pilots to land safely.


You’ll need:

  • knowledge of transport methods, costs and benefits
  • to have a thorough understanding of computer systems and applications

As well as:

  • concentration skills
  • the ability to use your judgement and make decisions (leadership)
  • the ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure
  • excellent verbal communication skills
  • complex problem-solving skills
  • to be thorough and pay attention to detail
  • the ability to think clearly using logic and reasoning
Illustration of employee looking at workspace

Entry Requirements:

To become an air traffic controller, there are no specific GCSE subjects that are strictly required, but certain subjects and skills can be highly beneficial for pursuing this career. Air traffic controllers play a critical role in aviation safety and efficiency, and their job requires a combination of cognitive abilities, communication skills, and specialized training. Here are some relevant GCSE subjects and skills that can be helpful:

  1. Mathematics: Strong math skills are essential for air traffic controllers. You’ll need to perform calculations related to aircraft separation, altitude, speed, and other critical factors.
  2. Physics: Physics principles are applied in understanding aircraft performance, navigation, and the effects of weather on flight. A basic understanding of physics can be helpful.
  3. English: Clear communication is a fundamental part of the job. Good written and spoken English skills are crucial for conveying instructions to pilots and coordinating with other air traffic controllers.
  4. Geography: An understanding of geography can be useful, especially when dealing with aircraft routes, airway systems, and geographical features that impact air traffic.
  5. Computer Science: Air traffic control systems are highly computerized. Basic knowledge of computer science and the ability to work with computer systems are important.

While GCSE subjects can provide a foundation for the cognitive skills required, it’s also important to research the specific entry requirements and qualifications set by the relevant aviation authority or air traffic control organization in your country. These requirements can vary and may include additional education or training beyond the GCSE level.

Post School

You’ll need an air traffic control licence from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). It takes around 3 years to train and you’ll complete your training while working.

To become a trainee controller, you’ll need:

  • to be 18 years old
  • In the UK you will require 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English and Maths
  • a medical examination
  • security clearance

The following university subjects are related to this career too:

  • Aerospace engineering and Aviation
  • Information systems

Working Hours and Environment:

You’ll usually work 40 hours a week on shifts, including days, nights, weekends and public holidays. During a shift you’ll usually guide aircraft for up to 2 hours, followed by a half-hour break.

You’ll be based in a flight control centre or airport control tower.

Career Path & Progression:

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

You could also move into operations management.