A career as an air traffic controller (ATC) is only rarely the dream of little boys and girls, but with the great perks the job offers vs. its entry requirements, it might just be the job you were looking for.
According to the BBC, the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), is currently facing several challenges that threaten its future. Whilst one such challenge relates to the much-discussed issue of rapid technological advancement and its overarching effects on traditional business models, the other is that of labour shortage across the United Kingdom. As the volume of air traffic increases while the number of applicants per job does the opposite, NATS doubles down on its efforts to recruit people amid an uncertain future. It is now calling for people from all educational and professional backgrounds, incentivising applicant interest with generous benefits schemes, extensive training, and competitive salaries.
Despite the common misconception that all aviation industry jobs require years of job-specific school and training, this idea could not be further from the truth in the case of ATC careers. Though NATS recommends a background in courses that emphasise numeracy and technical knowledge, this isn’t a rigid criterion, but rather a useful starting point for the comprehensive training NATS provides upon employment. Instead, candidates applying are only expected to have obtained at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and maths.
For those with higher-level qualifications, such as BTEC, HNC, HND, bachelor’s degree, NATS offers tailored and structured development programmes. This is also an option for university students on a sandwich year seeking to gain valuable work experience and secure future employment.
The set of skills required to excel in the job are also not necessarily niche, or only enjoyed by a select number of people. Just like any skills, these can also be built on and improved; particularly if by the end of this post you find yourself firmly sold on the idea of working as an air traffic controller.
In order to help applicants gauge whether they’re a good fit, NATS created a series of mini-games designed to test for vital skills, such as sequential memory, the ability to perform under pressure as well as basic cognitive skills, all of which are employed by ATCs on a daily basis.
Roles and Responsibilities
On a fundamental level, air traffic controllers’ main responsibility centres around ensuring a safe and efficient carriage of an aircraft, and getting its passengers from point A to point B. That is not to say, however, that the job itself is solely comprised of sitting in a control tower and looking at radar screens all day. On the contrary, there is far more to it than we can perhaps glean from blood-curdling yet reductive Hollywood portrayals (see Snakes on a Plane).
Another important component of the role is constant radio communication between ATCs and aircraft pilots. This is to provide the latter with crucial advice, practical instructions, and updates on weather conditions; in addition to ascent and descent guidance. Arguably, ATCs can be credited with most of the work involved in flying a plane as without their crucial and careful management of aircrafts and air traffic, it would be unsafe for the planes to ever take off.
It also vital to mention that there are three types of air traffic controllers, and though all three perform the above-mentioned duties to varying capacities, they are responsible for different aspects and stages of any given flight. The three types are:
Supervision of on-route flights, by setting cruising levels, managing crossing traffic as well as ensuring separation during final climb and initial descent.
Overseeing planes flying at low altitudes close to the airport.
Management of air traffic.
Starting Pay and Benefits
There is no denying that the ATC job isn’t for everyone, and most likely not for someone who struggles to keep their cool amid great responsibility and potential emergency situations. NATS acknowledges the many demands integral to the job, and consequently rewards its employees fairly and generously.
According to PayScale, the average air traffic controller salary currently stands at £52,475. However, newly-arrived entry-level staff are required to complete a number of training-heavy stages, all of which entail different salary ranges.
On joining as a Trainee Air Traffic Controller and starting the essential college-based training, you will receive an entry-level salary. However, you will also be entitled to a weekly payment of £60 per week to help with costs of living whilst training.
You may also be able to claim £1,000 on completion of this stage.
NATS Operational Unit Training
Once you’ve completed your college-based training, you will be posted to a NATS Unit for further, on-the-job training. At this stage, your salary will also increase by roughly £2-6k, depending on where you’re posted.
Qualified Air Traffic Controllers
On completion of all your training, you will qualify as an air traffic controller, and once again see a significant salary increase. What’s more, this number will continue to rise throughout your career, depending on your progress and level of expertise.
At all of the above stages, NATS trainees and employees are able to reap the benefits of NATS’s generous benefits package. This includes 28 days’ annual leave allowance, a defined pension scheme, an annual bonus, and dental insurance among many others.
Is this the job for you?
Though the air traffic controller job may not always be the most obvious choice for those not yet sure of what professional path they would like to follow, it’s hard to dispute the many advantages and benefits of this particular avenue. Amid an often-ruthless and demanding job market, the opportunities offered by NATS’s Air Traffic Controller role represent a refreshing change, and a glimmer of hope for those who never felt quite at home at school.