Air Traffic Controller

Do you excel at making rapid decisions in high pressure situations? Do you have superior communication skills? Were you fascinated with model airplanes as a child? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then read on, because becoming an air traffic controller may be the career choice for you!

Air traffic controllers are responsible for the safe, expeditious, and orderly movement of aircraft within an assigned airspace and on the ground of airports. As you will discover shortly, the job is much more complex than this seemingly straightforward definition would suggest. Specialization in one of two areas is possible. Tower Controllers are the more familiar of the two. They direct air traffic within a five to fifteen kilometer radius around an airport. They work in a glass-walled room at the top of airport control towers. As a group, they are responsible for ensuring the safe separation and movement of airport vehicles and departing, landing, and taxing aircraft. On the other hand, Enroute/Terminal Controllers work at seven area control centres in Canada where they keep track of flights and keep airplanes separated as they fly along airways and land or take off at airports that do not have control towers. They also hand off control to other controllers when airplanes leave the control centre's airspace and initiate search and rescue operations to locate overdue airplanes.

Ken formerly worked as a Tower Controller and enjoyed his time in this career immensely. Back when Ken was in university, his best friend suggested to him that he might be cut out to be an air traffic controller. This friend felt that Ken had the right "make-up" to be successful in the occupation because he was a swift thinker with good communication skills who functioned well in high pressure situations. Ken did not think much of these comments at the time, and it was not until years later when he was contemplating a career change, that he looked into the occupation further.

A typical working day for Ken began with him talking to a flight service specialist about the day's weather conditions and flight plans. He would open the tower, check all of the equipment, and check his radios. He would review the day's flight plans again, this time on the computer, and check to see where all the planes would be coming from. While he always tried to be as prepared as possible, Ken notes that "you can only do so much planning [in this job]. You have to be as prepared as possible, but you never fully know what is going to happen with the planes and must be flexible."

you can only do so much planning [in this job]. You have to be as prepared as possible, but you never fully know what is going to happen with the planes and must be flexible.

Ken believes this occupation to have numerous positive features. For one, it certainly provides much excitement and challenge, and you are granted a huge amount of responsibility. In addition, you are fairly independent and are in full control of your day-to-day tasks. Ken also suggests that this is a job which ends as soon as working hours are over: "at the end of your shift, you are relieved by an incoming worker. I hardly ever found myself taking my work home with me, and I liked that." Another noteworthy aspect is that workers are rarely, if ever, required to stay late.

The road to becoming an air traffic controller is by no means an easy one, something Ken emphasized repeatedly. The screening process is very rigorous and there are many phases you must pass through prior to actually being employed. Many people are "weeded out" at each phase. This is an occupation in which the slightest error on the part of the worker can have devastating effects. After all, human lives are at stake. It is therefore important that highly competent individuals be selected for the job. Ken says that "you really have to do your research and know what you are getting into beforehand, so that there are no surprises."

What does this process look like? To begin, a high school diploma (or the equivalent) is a necessity for all those interested in applying. In addition, applicants must be at least 18 years old and are required to take a basic aptitude exam. Candidates are then rank-ordered according to their aptitude scores, and according to Ken, around 50 percent then proceed to an interview phase. Interviewees are scored according to a points system, and while a university degree is not necessarily a requirement of the occupation, Ken points out that it does give you more points and "basically...shows that you have the ability to learn." Depending on the number of training spots available and the number of applications received, candidates with the highest overall rankings are invited to attend an intense, in-class training program at the NAV CANADA Training Institute (NCTI) in Cornwall, Ontario for five to ten months. Upon successful completion of this initial training a candidate begins on-the-job training, at a tower or centre selected for them based on operational need. Personal preference for working in a particular location is also taken into account, to a lesser extent. At this point, they become a probationary employee and begin receiving a salary from NAV CANADA.

Additional requirements for employment are that you qualify for a security clearance, have adequate hearing and vision (this includes colour perception), and that you successfully pass a civil aviation medical exam. You should also have the ability to quickly learn computer systems and applications. Though this whole process may seem daunting, people do get through it and can end up having a highly rewarding career. As Ken put it, "I loved being paid to watch airplanes and enjoyed having such an effect on so many people." Furthermore, even new air traffic controllers can expect to earn above-average salaries in relation to the amount of education required for the job.

I loved being paid to watch airplanes and enjoyed having such an effect on so many people.

In terms of the necessary personal characteristics for this career, Ken lists "being excellent under pressure, mentally alert, a fast decision maker, able to process information quickly and accurately, and able to handle large amounts of responsibility." You should also be able to follow clear cut rules and have a good short term memory. Good communication skills, including fluency in English (and French for positions in Quebec and Ottawa) are absolutely essential.

Those considering a career in air traffic control should be aware that individuals are often required to work rotating shifts. Shifts are 8.5 hours and you are always working with another individual which is particularly helpful when you are new on the job. You and your co-worker are able to switch on and off duties during the duration of the shift. Shifts cover the full 24 hours each day, and days off do not necessarily fall on the weekends. In other words, this is certainly not your "typical" 9-5 schedule. This schedule can be difficult for some individuals, especially those with a family. Another difficulty Ken cites is that you can be assigned to any air traffic control centre or tower in Canada, meaning that frequent relocation is a real possibility.

If you are considering a career in air traffic control, Ken suggests doing a lot of research, including visiting the NAV CANADA website, and talking to people who work in the occupation. If possible, you should also try to visit one of the towers or control centres, in order to become familiar with the work environment and the type of work done, although this might not always be possible due to security provisions at some locations.

The employment outlook for air traffic controllers is good. "This is a job that will always require a human to do it."


Alberta Occupational Profiles (OCCInfo) - Air Traffic Controller