Air traffic controllers keep air traffic flying safely and efficiently. They help pilots to take off and land safely, and make sure that planes are kept a safe distance apart.
Air traffic controllers are responsible for a particular section of airspace. They are in frequent radio contact with pilots flying over their section, giving them instructions, advice and information. Air traffic controllers have different duties according to where they are based.
Area controllers are based away from airports at control centres. They direct planes in flight and give them the most efficient route to their destination. Using radar and computer technology they can track the exact position of each aircraft. They also use radar to keep traffic separated in the air. Most air traffic controllers work as area controllers.
Approach controllers take over as the aircraft approaches the airport. They are responsible for deciding when and where each plane should land, and guiding them into the most efficient order.
Aerodrome controllers look after the plane as it comes into the airport. They guide it to a safe landing and into a parking stand. In very busy airports, they could be either air controllers, who look after the plane during landing, or ground controllers, who take over once it has touched down. Aerodrome controllers also guide aircraft during take-off, seeing them safely from the parking stands onto the runway and into the air.
Air traffic controllers also respond to distress calls - for example, if light aircraft pilots lose their way, controllers give them information about their exact position.
Air traffic controllers work shifts, covering days, nights, weekends and public holidays. During shifts, they can guide several aircraft for up to one and a half hours, followed by a half-hour break between each session.
They spend most of their working time sitting at a workstation using computers, radar displays and radio equipment to gather and interpret data, communicating with pilots through a headset.
To be an air traffic controller you should:
Some air traffic controllers work in control towers at airports, but most are based in control centres. The area control centre at Prestwick, near Glasgow deals with flights in Scottish airspace and parts of the North Atlantic. A new control centre at Swanwick has taken over control of airspace in England and Wales. It is the biggest and most advanced air traffic centre in the world. Around 650 air traffic controllers, engineers and other skilled staff are based there.
Opportunities exist with the Royal Air Force.
After a few years experience as an air traffic controller there may be opportunities to move into training and assessing prospective new air traffic controllers. Another route is to become an Operational Watch Supervisor in charge of other ATCOs.
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