What Does An Air Traffic Controller Do? Things You Should Know Before Pursuing This Career

Air traffic controllers are professionals within the aviation industry. They are charged with the valuable task of ensuring safe and efficient air travel.

The job requires a high level of skill and precision, as controllers communicate valuable information, coordinate flight paths and handle the network of air traffic.

This guide outlines the role these professionals play in maintaining the safety and efficiency of air travel. Learn more about their role and how they manage the flow of aircraft both in the sky and on the ground, maintaining order and safety across busy airspaces.

What Is An Air Traffic Controller?

An air traffic controller is a professional who ensures the safety and efficient flow of air traffic in the skies and on the ground. Their responsibility is to continuously monitor aircraft, including planes and helicopters, to maintain a safe distance between them.

This job also involves overseeing flight plans and regularly communicating with pilots about landing and takeoff times.

These controllers work in various environments, such as control towers, approach control facilities and en-route centres. In the tower, they manage aircraft movement on the airport runways and taxiways.

Most air traffic controllers manage multiple tasks simultaneously. For example, they could guide one aircraft to landing while relaying weather updates to another.

Approach and area controllers handle the controlled airspace, guiding aircraft entering and leaving terminal areas or travelling through the skies.

Their tools include radar, radio systems and computers, which help manage aircraft movements and ensure they remain safely apart at all times.

The primary goal of air traffic control is not just to keep air travel safe but also to keep it moving smoothly and punctually.

What Do Air Traffic Controllers Do Daily?

Air traffic controllers play a role in the aviation industry, ensuring the safe and efficient management of air traffic. Tasked with managing multiple aspects of air traffic, these professionals are valuable for the smooth operation of flights and airport efficiency.

Here’s a closer look at their daily responsibilities:

  • Monitor and Direct Aircraft Movements: Air traffic controllers manage the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, ensuring each maintains a safe distance from others. They also oversee all ground traffic at airport runways and taxiways, ensuring everything runs smoothly.
  • Issue Takeoff and Landing Instructions: One of the primary roles of air traffic controllers is to issue directives for takeoffs and landings. This process is critical to maintaining an orderly flow of air traffic at major airports.
  • Control Transfers Between Control Centres: Controllers at approach control facilities manage aircraft during their ascent and descent phases, while en route controllers handle the traffic between airports.
    The transfer of control from one centre to another is a delicate task that ensures continuous monitoring and management of the aircraft’s safety.
  • Communicate Information to Pilots: Air traffic controllers provide important information to pilots, including updates on weather conditions, runway closures and other important operational data to maintain aircraft safety.
  • Handle Emergency Situations: In emergencies, air traffic controllers follow specific protocols to ensure immediate and effective communication with airport response teams and other necessary personnel. Their quick decision-making and clear instructions are important in managing such incidents.
  • Maintain Constant Communication: Using sophisticated communication equipment, controllers must remain focused and responsive as they guide pilots and coordinate with other controllers to minimise delays and maintain the expeditious flow of air traffic.

3 Types Of Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers are categorised into three types, each with distinct responsibilities and operational environments.

Each type of controller requires rigorous training and must remain focused on managing multiple flights simultaneously, ensuring safety and minimising delays in their respective control areas.

1. Tower Controllers

Positioned in control towers at airports, tower controllers manage the immediate airspace and ground movements.

They oversee the critical moments of aircraft activities, from taxiing and takeoff to landing within a radius of 3 to 30 miles from the airport.

Their duties include checking flight plans, issuing takeoff and landing clearances, and providing separation between aircraft as they depart or arrive.

Once they leave the local airspace, they transfer aircraft control to en-route centres and take over incoming flights within their jurisdiction.

2. Approach And Departure Controllers

These controllers operate from Terminal Radar Approach Control Centers (TRACONs). They manage the controlled airspace over and around an airport, generally covering a range of 20 to 50 miles and up to approximately 17,000 feet.

Their role is to maintain safe separation between aircraft as they navigate through terminal airspace. They issue clearances for entering controlled airspace, manage aircraft during their ascent and descent, and handle the handoff of control to en-route controllers.

3. En Route Controllers

Also known as area controllers, they oversee aircraft travelling through vast sections of airspace far from the immediate vicinity of airports.

Working from en-route traffic control centres strategically placed across the country but typically not at airports, they guide aircraft through the bulk of their journey.

En-route controllers ensure safe distances between aircraft, make necessary adjustments to flight paths and coordinate the transfer of control to approach controllers as flights near their destinations.

Career Path Of An Air Traffic Controller

The career path of an air traffic controller is both structured and progressive, offering various stages of growth from entry-level to advanced positions.

In Singapore, this path is carefully laid out to ensure that each controller gains the necessary skills and experience to handle the complexities of air traffic management efficiently.

Probationary Air Traffic Control Officer (PATCO) Training

The journey begins with an aspiring controller taking on the Probationary Air Traffic Control Officer role.

At this stage, the individual undergoes specialised training at the Singapore Aviation Academy (SAA), where they learn to manage air traffic within 40 nautical miles of Changi Airport.

This initial training phase is important for building a foundation to ensure safe flight levels and maintaining an orderly flow of aircraft.

Specialised Training Streams

After their initial training, controllers are streamed into specialised areas based on their performance and preferences. These areas include Aerodrome Control, Approach Control and Area Control.

Each stream has tailored training courses and on-the-job training sessions to equip controllers with the skills to achieve their Air Traffic Control (ATC) ratings.

Career Advancement

With experience, air traffic controllers gain opportunities to advance their careers further. As they acquire ATC ratings, they become eligible for more specialised roles in air traffic control.

These roles might involve leading operational units, engaging in air traffic management planning or contributing to policy formulation.

Advanced positions may also involve managerial responsibilities, such as overseeing the operational and safety standards at control towers and other air traffic control centres.

4 Pros And 4 Cons Of Being An Air Traffic Controller

Choosing an air traffic controller career comes with its unique set of advantages and challenges. This role is valuable within the aviation industry, requiring a high level of responsibility and skill.

Below, we explore some of the primary pros and cons of this demanding yet rewarding profession.


  1. Remuneration and Rewards: Air traffic controllers in Singapore enjoy attractive remuneration packages, including monthly salary, allowances and operational benefits.
    With experience and qualifications, they can receive additional allowances and benefits, such as rating allowances and recall allowances.
  2. Rewarding Work: The work of an air traffic controller is immensely rewarding. They play a role in ensuring the safety of thousands of passengers daily, contributing significantly to aviation safety.
  3. Career Growth: There are ample opportunities for career advancement within air traffic control. From starting as a trainee air traffic controller to potentially moving into supervisory and management roles, the path offers various avenues for professional development.
  4. Dynamic Work Environment: No two days are the same in the life of an air traffic controller. The dynamic nature of the job keeps it interesting and engaging, as controllers must continuously adapt to changing flight patterns, weather conditions and emergencies.


  1. High Stress Levels: The job comes with high stakes and, consequently, high stress. Air traffic controllers must remain focused and alert, often over two hours without a break, to manage aircraft movements and maintain a safe distance between flights.
  2. Stringent Training Requirements: Becoming a fully qualified air traffic controller involves training, including practical training sessions and continuous monitoring. The training is demanding and requires a significant commitment.
  3. Constant Attention to Detail: Precision and meticulous attention to detail are paramount in air traffic control. One small oversight can lead to severe consequences, placing immense pressure on controllers.
  4. Mandatory Retirement: Most air traffic controllers face a mandatory retirement age, which can be lower than in other professions. This is due to the high demands of the job, which require peak mental and physical health.

How To Become An Air Traffic Controller In Singapore?

A career as an air traffic controller in Singapore represents a journey through a highly structured educational and training pathway.

Here are the key steps to becoming an air traffic controller in Singapore, detailing the initial training, specialised paths, required licensing and opportunities for continuous career advancement.


The career path to becoming an air traffic controller in Singapore is highly structured. It involves educational and training steps overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

  • Initial Training: The journey begins with an applicant becoming a Probationary Air Traffic Control Officer (PATCO). Training is conducted at the Singapore Aviation Academy, where candidates undergo intensive courses that include both theoretical and practical aspects of air traffic control.
  • Specialisation: After initial training, candidates are streamed into specialised paths based on their performance and preference.
    These include Aerodrome Control, Approach Control or Area Control. Each specialisation requires further specific training and on-the-job training to attain necessary Air Traffic Control (ATC) ratings.
  • Licensing: To legally operate as an air traffic controller, one must obtain an Air Traffic Controller Licence. This licence is valuable for providing air traffic control services in Singapore’s airspace and at its airports, including Changi and Seletar.
  • Continuous Advancement: As controllers gain experience, there are opportunities for advancement into more specialised or managerial roles within air traffic management, planning and policy formulation.

Training Courses

The Singapore Aviation Academy (SAA), the training arm of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), offers a training programme for air traffic controllers in Singapore.

The SAA is internationally recognised and offers a comprehensive range of training programs in various disciplines, including air traffic services, to meet the regulatory, operational, safety and security mandates of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The SAA’s training programmes provide the highest quality training and share knowledge and experience to advance international civil aviation.

These programmes are developed according to ICAO standards and recommended practices.

To become an air traffic controller in Singapore, one must complete an air traffic control training programme offered by the SAA. This programme covers all aspects of air traffic control, including the theoretical and practical aspects of the job.

The programme equips students with the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their duties effectively and safely.

The SAA’s training programmes are also highly regarded and considered among the best in the world. The academy has a strong reputation for delivering high-quality training and has been recognised for its excellence in aviation education and training.


Individuals aspiring to become air traffic controllers typically need to undergo specific certification programs offered by the SAA. Besides training programs for air traffic services, the certifications obtained through these programs are important for individuals to qualify for air traffic control positions in Singapore.

The specific certifications needed for air traffic controllers in Singapore may include:

  • Air Traffic Control License: An Air Traffic Control License is mandatory before individuals can provide air traffic control services for flights operating in the Singapore Flight Information Region, as well as flights landing at or departing
  • Air Traffic Control Rating: These ratings indicate the specific areas or types of air traffic control services an individual is qualified to perform, such as aerodrome control, approach control or area control.
  • Air Traffic Control Endorsements: Endorsements allow individuals to specialise in specific aspects of air traffic control, such as procedural control, surveillance control or other specialised areas within the field.

These certifications demonstrate that individuals have completed the required training and have met the competency standards set by the regulatory authorities in Singapore.

By obtaining these certifications, individuals can demonstrate their proficiency in air traffic control procedures, communication skills and decision-making abilities, which are valuable for ensuring the safe and orderly flow of air traffic in Singapore’s airspace.

Conclusion About Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers play a role in the aviation industry, ensuring the safety and efficiency of air traffic across the globe. This career, while demanding due to the high stakes and intense nature of the work, offers substantial rewards, including a sense of accomplishment, security and progression.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Air Traffic Controller

How Does Air Traffic Control Differ During Increased Flight Volume, Such As Holidays?

During peak travel times like holidays, air traffic control (ATC) faces increased challenges due to the higher volume of flights. ATC employs more strategic planning to manage this efficiently and often increases staffing to handle the surge.

Coordination between different control centres is intensified to ensure the smooth handling of both departures and arrivals, with controllers using advanced traffic management strategies to minimise delays and maintain safety.

How Do Air Traffic Controllers Coordinate With Other International Air Traffic Control Units?

Air traffic controllers coordinate with international units through a global network that uses standardised communication protocols to ensure safety and efficiency. This involves constant communication by satellite and high-frequency radio systems to manage cross-border flights.

Controllers exchange real-time information about flight paths, weather conditions and potential hazards to maintain an orderly traffic flow and prevent airspace conflicts.

What Emergency Protocols Do Air Traffic Controllers Follow?

Air traffic controllers follow specific emergency protocols, including alerting airport emergency services, coordinating with multiple agencies and providing pilots with all necessary assistance to manage the situation.

These protocols quickly secure the safety of all passengers, crew and aircraft. Controllers must make rapid decisions, such as rerouting other aircraft to clear airspace for emergency landings and communicating critical information to the affected crew.

What Role Do Air Traffic Controllers Play In Search And Rescue Operations?

Air traffic controllers play a role in search and rescue operations. They coordinate with rescue units to provide precise location data and flight path histories of missing or distressed aircraft.

They help establish a search area and manage airspace by rerouting other flights to ensure safety and clear operation for rescue teams. Their expertise in monitoring and communication is important in orchestrating an effective response during such critical situations.

What Are The Health Requirements For Becoming An Air Traffic Controller?

To become an air traffic controller, one must meet stringent health requirements, which include excellent vision and hearing, good cardiovascular health and no significant neurological conditions.

Regular medical examinations are mandatory to ensure controllers maintain the health standards to perform their high-stakes jobs effectively. Mental health and stress tolerance are also assessed to ensure that candidates can handle the job pressures without compromising safety.

What Is The Salary Of An Air Traffic Controller In Singapore?

The salary of an air traffic controller in Singapore can vary but generally falls within the range of $3,000 to $8,000 per month, depending on the source and specific position within the air traffic control field.

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