What Exactly Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?


When we fly, we personally cross paths or at least see with dozens of airline and airport employees, from check-in personnel to flight crew. But many crucial personnel work out of sight of passengers, from baggage handlers to the folks up in the control tower. It’s these air traffic controllers (ATC‘s) who have one of the most crucial roles of all. And here we’d like to explain a little bit about who they are, what they do, and how they do it.


The Job Description


Air traffic controllers are basically the airport staff who monitor and direct all incoming and outgoing aircraft at a given airport, so that this traffic is orderly, timely, and above all safe. Among their responsibilities is to issue instructions at all times to pilots and provide them with the necessary weather information regarding weather, necessary maneuvers, and so forth. Specifically, their function is to

    • Prevent aircraft collisions, both with each other and with obstructions in the area.
    • Provide pilots with the best possible routing, adjusting established routes and flight paths when necessary depending on atmospheric conditions.
    • Also provide them other useful information to make their flights as smooth and comfortable as possible.
    • Ensure that all aircraft maintain the proper safety distance from each other.

The 5 Types of Air Traffic Controllers


According to their functions and areas of jurisdiction – in the air or on the ground – distinctions exist between types of ATC’s, although in some cases one controller may fall into multiple categories.

Authorisation controllers – As their name indicates, these folks have to approve all takeoffs and landings.

Ground controllers – They guide each aircraft taxiing around the airport, between its parking position at the gate and the takeoff-landing runway.

Tower controllers – Their purview is the ATZ (Airdrome Traffic Zone), the airspace associated with their particular airport, up to five nautical miles (5.75 regular miles and 9.3 kilometres). They also supply pilots with information on weather, bird flocks, any construction or other ground anomalies that could cause problems in an aircraft’s arrival or departure.

Approach controllers – Covering both approaching and departing aircraft, the specialty here is the control zone (aka CTR, for Controlled Traffic Region), the airspace ranging from five nautical miles up to 10, 20, or 40, as the case may be. When an aircraft leaves this controller’s zone of jurisdiction, it’s handed off to the tower controller (for arrivals) or route controller (for departures; see below).

Route controllers – These folks take charge in the rest of the airspace not covered by the above.

In Spain, the only major provider of air-traffice-control services is Enaire, a public entity attached to the Ministry of Development.

What’s the Profile of an ATC?


In addition to the training they receive, air traffic controllers must fulfill various requirements. First and foremost is to have excellent eyesight and hearing, as well as clear diction (all for obvious reasons). In addition to this, they must:

  • Exhibit a professional demeanour and be capable of working under pressure as well as making quick decisions in critical situations.
  • Have a special talent for thinking in three dimensions.
  • Possess an exceptional facility with high-technology systems.
  • Be willing to assume a role with a lot of responsibility.
  • Speak and understand English (the international language of aviation) well.
  • Be able to work well as part of a team.
  • Be able to bring to bear a very high degree of concentration.


ATC Training: Extensive & Intensive


To get one’s controller licence, each candidate must take a detailed course lasting a year and a half, including There’s an initial in-classroom phase which is theoretical. Then, in the case of non-native-English speakers, competence in that language must be certified. Once this requirement is satisfied, a student-controller licence is issued (in Spain by AESA, the State Air Security Agency), which also certifies the centres in which this training is conducted, some of which are part of various universities. Finally, there is a period of on-the-job training in an actual control tower – supervised, of course, by experienced professionals.

Once the licence has finally been granted, in Spain candidates must then take civil service exam, the requirements for which include Spanish citizenship or that of another European Union member country; a secondary-school diploma; a rating in written and spoken English of at least C1; and a medical certificate verifying that the candidate is physically and pychologically qualified to be an air traffic controller.

Easy peasy, right? 😉