Air traffic controller: Job description

Air traffic controllers manage aircraft through all aspects of their flight with the priority of safety, followed by other aspects such as ensuring arrivals and departures are on time.

They use highly sophisticated radar and radio communication equipment to communicate advice, information and instructions to pilots.

Air traffic controllers are well known for working in control towers at airports, but the majority actually work in area control centres. They are responsible for the en-route stage of the aircraft, using radar to track its exact position, keeping it safe in the airspace and providing the most efficient route.

Approach controllers deal with instrument landing systems, which allow some planes to make automatic landings, and ensure that planes are placed in holding patterns when airports are busy. They take over from the area controllers as the aircraft is approaching the airport. They give initial clearance for the aircraft to approach the airport and put all approaching aircraft into a sequence to create the most efficient order for landing.

At the last stage, aerodrome controllers take over. They are the ones who are at the top of the control towers and they guide the pilots in to make a safe landing. The towers enable them to have good all round viewing of the aerodrome. They ensure that the aircraft gets to its parking stand safely and that those leaving the stands reach the runway safely. In some busy airports, the aerodrome controllers are divided into air control and ground control.

In addition to carrying out the same take-off and landing procedures as civilian air traffic controllers, air traffic controllers in the RAF also make sure the air bases are maintained and prepared for emergencies. They also communicate with civilian air authorities to ensure civilian aircraft can pass safely through their airspace. For further information, see Royal Air Force Careers .

Typical work activities

Tasks may vary depending on whether you work as an area, approach or aerodrome controller, but they include:

keeping radio and/or radar contact with aircraft;
directing the movement of aircraft en route or at an airport;
instructing aircraft to climb or descend and allocating final cruising level;
providing information to aircraft about weather conditions;
making sure that minimum distances are maintained between planes;
handling unexpected events, emergencies and unscheduled traffic.

Duties specific for approach and aerodrome controllers include:

controlling movements onto and off runways;
handling the ground movement of planes around the terminals;
handling the ground movement of vehicles around the airport.