Wednesday, 24th April 2019


Air traffic controllers are responsible for managing commercial aircraft throughout all aspects of flight, prioritising safety and working towards plane taking off and landing on time. They need to help pilots take off and land safely at airports and monitor all aircraft travelling throughout the UK.

Air traffic controllers use navigation and satellite surveillance to communicate with pilots via radio, informing them of any changes to flight plan or weather conditions. There are 2,500 air traffic controllers in the UK, most of which are employed by NATS Ltd, the largest air traffic control company. They will often be based in the towers at airports, but their range of control can span for hundreds of miles, monitoring the 2.5million flights that go through the UK every year.

There are three main areas of responsibility for air traffic controllers:

  • Area Control - about 80% of air traffic controllers work in this specific area. Based at control centres, air traffic controllers will monitor the flight position of each plane in the air, ensuring that they all keep a safe distance from each other.
  • Approach Control - these air traffic controllers will give clearance for pilots to approach and land at airports, getting in contact with aircraft when they are 15-20 miles away from the airport. They will work out which order the aircrafts can land in, depending on weather conditions and flight schedules.
  • Aerodynamic Control - these air traffic controllers will take over control when the plane is five miles away and will guide it onto the runway safely. Aerodynamic controllers will need to guide the plane into its landing bay and will also assist in planes taking off.

Air traffic controllers have a lot of responsibility in the safe and smooth running of an airport and surrounding airspace. They often help pilots with flight plans, advising them on when to change them due to weather conditions or changes in security. As well as UK aircraft, air traffic controllers may occasionally need to communicate with their foreign counterparts, regarding one of their own aircrafts.

It is important for air traffic controllers to be calm, collected and easy communicators. They must be able to problem-solve quickly but calmly in emergency situations, for example, informing, instructing and guiding a light aircraft to safety that has lost its way in bad weather.

Air traffic controllers that work for the military will have similar roles, communicating with the RAF pilots and managing the air field. They also communicate with civilian and commercial air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace.

Air traffic controllers are also needed in military aviation. To find out more about this area please visit our Royal Air Force job path.