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Air Traffic Controller

Kaiwhakahaere Huarahi Rererangi

Alternative titles for this job

Air traffic controllers direct the safe and orderly movement of aircraft while they are flying, landing, taking off and taxiing.

Pay

Air traffic controllers usually earn

$95K-$200K per year

Experienced air traffic controllers at radar centres usually earn

$160K-$200K per year

Source: Airways International , 2021.

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as an air traffic controller are poor due to the small number of people in the role and high competition for positions.

Pay

Pay for air traffic controllers varies depending on where they work, their experience and their duties. Pay includes a base salary plus superannuation, shift work allowances and other benefits.

  • New air traffic controllers working at regional airports usually start on $95,000 a year.
  • Experienced air traffic controllers usually earn up to $200,000.
  • Air traffic controllers who work at the radar centres in Auckland and Christchurch can earn $160,000 to $200,000.

Source: Airways International, 2021.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Air traffic controllers may do some or all of the following:

  • receive information about flights from flight plans, pilot reports, radar and observations
  • direct aircraft and manage aircraft traffic flows
  • advise pilots on weather conditions, the status of facilities and airports
  • give pilots permission to take off, land and change altitude and direction
  • give airport workers permission to move around the tarmac and runway
  • monitor aircraft on a radar and resolve possible conflicts
  • alert airport fire crew and rescue services in emergencies
  • write reports on incidents.

Skills and knowledge

Air traffic controllers need to have knowledge of:

  • meteorology
  • technical flying terms
  • civil aviation laws
  • safety rules and emergency procedures.

Working conditions

Air traffic controllers:

  • usually work seven-and-a-half hour shifts, which includes evening, night and weekend work
  • usually work in control towers at airports or at radar centres
  • may work alone at small airports.

What's the job really like?

George Perigo – Air traffic controller

George Perigo

Air Traffic Controller

George Perigo always had a passion for aviation, so when he read about being an air traffic controller he knew it was the career for him. Since then, George has successfully completed his training and now keeps air traffic moving as a fully-qualified air traffic controller.

An important job

“A typical day essentially involves preventing collisions between aircraft, whether they are on the ground or in the air.

“Every day brings something different and I love the challenge of quickly coming up with a solution to a complex traffic situation and then moving on to the next – it’s like solving a three-dimensional puzzle.”

Fantastic work-life balance

“Air traffic controllers have strict duty times to reduce tiredness. We generally work four days on, two days off, with maximum seven-and-a-half hour shifts.

“You never take work home with you, as soon as you walk out the door, that’s it.”

You’ve got to stay calm and make good decisions

“Air traffic controllers need to have a good amount of common sense, be able to stay calm under pressure, and be good at making decisions. If you have a passion for aviation and are motivated, then this could easily be the career for you.”

Air traffic controller video

Clayton Lightfoot shares what it takes to become an air traffic controller – 1.23 mins. (Video courtesy of Airways NZ)

A lot of people do ask me the question "Do you have to be a rocket scientist?" "Do you need to be super-smart at maths?"

You just need to be a well-rounded person, that's got a good amount of common sense.

We teach you how planes fly, how helicopters fly, and the difference between them.

We teach you about the weather, about navigation, what the pilot is actually thinking while he's up there, what he's feeling and going through when you can hear in his voice that he's getting bumped around or a bit nervous.

I did the training centre quite a number of years ago and I still text and talk to the guys on my course. We all try and catch up and go out for a beer and stuff like that. Because we're similar personality types we all get on really well, and we joke and laugh and have a great time.

Once you get signed off from that [the training centre] you then get posted to a particular unit and you work at that unit under the guidance of an instructor until the instructor is happy that you could do it solo. Then you get signed off and get your ATC license.

The achievement of getting sign-off is actually quite a big thing. Hopefully I'll sign someone off today, and the whole team is really excited about it. That person will go home tonight and sleep very well and it will dawn on them tomorrow that they're an air traffic controller. And it'll be a massive and fantastic feeling for them.

Entry requirements

To become an air traffic controller you need to have:

  • completed courses and qualifications in air traffic services which include an eight-month course in Christchurch and on-the-job training 
  • a Class 3 medical certificate
  • an airport security clearance.

To get into the courses you must:

  • be either a New Zealand or Australian citizen or a permanent resident
  • pass aptitude tests, interviews and group exercises
  • be at least 20 years old
  • Have NCEA Level 3 or equivalent or hold a personal or commercial pilot licence and work experience
  • pass the Civil Aviation Authority medical certificate and requirements to be a fit and proper person.

Airways New Zealand hold regular intakes to the courses each year, but entry is very competitive.

If you are under 20 years old, you can do a Bachelor of Aviation Management at Massey University for two years, before entering an air traffic control training programme.

Secondary education

NCEA Level 3 is required to enter tertiary training. Useful subjects include English and maths.

Personal requirements

Air traffic controllers need to be:

  • very organised, with the ability to prioritise, plan and make decisions
  • able to remain calm under pressure and adapt quickly to changing situations
  • able to learn theory and apply it in practical situations
  • excellent at spatial awareness
  • mature, responsible and conscientious
  • skilled in making calculations
  • clear communicators and able to work well with others.

Air traffic controllers need to have a good amount of common sense, be able to stay calm under pressure, and be good at making decisions.


Photo: George Perigo

George Perigo

Air Traffic Controller

Useful experience

Useful experience for air traffic controllers includes:

  • work as an aeroplane or helicopter pilot
  • other aviation and navigation experience
  • any work dealing with people
  • work in industries with a strong health and safety focus, for example, emergency services.

Physical requirements

Air traffic controllers need to have:

  • good hearing and eyesight (with or without corrective lenses)
  • normal colour vision
  • good spatial awareness.

They also need to be reasonably healthy, as they have to pass a medical examination every one to four years.

Find out more about training

Airways New Zealand

trainingadmin@airways.co.nz  - www.airways.co.nz

Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

Small number of air traffic controller roles and limited entry to training

Vacancies for air traffic controllers are limited due to the small number of people in the role. Most air traffic controllers stay in the role for a long time so there is low staff turnover. For these reasons there is high competition for any vacancies.

Airways New Zealand, the only employer of air traffic controllers, takes just 12-24 trainees into the air traffic control courses each year. Entry into the courses is very competitive. Trainees who complete the courses and meet other requirements usually get a job.

According to the Census, 465 air traffic controllers worked in New Zealand in 2018.

New technology set to change how and where air traffic controllers work

New technology air traffic management systems, set to be introduced over the next 10 years, could result in a reduction in demand for air traffic controllers in the long term.

Virtual control towers are being trialled, which could mean controllers monitor air traffic from remote locations in the future. 

One employer of air traffic controllers

All air traffic controllers work for Airways New Zealand.

Sources

  • Airways New Zealand website, accessed November 2021, (www.airways.co.nz).
  • de Lambert, K, head of Air Traffic Services (ATS), Airways International, careers.govt.nz interview, November 2021.
  • Stats NZ, '2018 Census Data,' 2019.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

New air traffic controllers usually work at a regional control tower, dealing mostly with domestic flights. With two to three years' experience they may progress to work in an international control tower or radar centre. They may then move into management or specialist roles such as:

Air Traffic Control Policy and Standards Specialist
Air traffic control policy and standards specialists co-ordinate and provide advice on procedures, licensing and standards issues.
Air Training Centre Instructor
Air training centre instructors train air traffic controllers.
Air traffic controllers at RNZAF Base Ohakea controlling aeroplane traffic

Air traffic controllers direct aircrafts and manage aircraft traffic flows

Last updated 13 December 2021