Air Traffic Controller
Kaiwhakahaere Huarahi Rererangi
This job is sometimes referred to by alternative titles
Air traffic controllers direct the safe and orderly movement of aircraft while they are flying, landing, taking off and taxiing.
Air traffic controllers usually earn
$90K-$160K per year
Experienced air traffic controllers who work at radar centres usually earn
$160K-$180K per year
Source: Airways New Zealand, 2018.
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 about $90,000 a year.
- Experienced air traffic controllers can earn up to $160,000.
- Air traffic controllers who work at the radar centres in Auckland or Christchurch can earn up to $180,000 a year.
Source: Airways New Zealand, 2018.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the figures and diagrams in our job 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 look for 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:
- flight planning and navigation
- technical flying terms
- civil aviation laws
- safety rules and emergency procedures.
Air traffic controllers:
- usually work seven-and-a-half hour shifts, which may include 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?
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-fledged 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.”
Clayton Lightfoot shares what it takes to become an air traffic controller – 1.23 mins. (Video courtesy of Airways NZ)
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.
To become an air traffic controller you need to have:
- a Diploma in Air Traffic Control (Level 7), involving a six-month course and on-the-job training
- a Class 3 medical certificate
- an airport security clearance.
The diploma course is only run by Airways New Zealand. To get into the course you must:
- be either a New Zealand citizen or a permanent resident
- pass aptitude tests, interviews and group exercises
- be at least 20.5 years old
- Have NCEA Level 3 or hold a personal or commercial pilot licence
- pass a medical test.
Airways New Zealand hold regular intakes to the course each year, but entry is very competitive.
If you are under 20.5 years old, you can do a Bachelor of Aviation Management at Massey University for two years, before doing the Diploma in Air Traffic Control for the final year of the degree.
- Airways New Zealand website - find out more about air traffic controller entry requirements and training
NCEA Level 3 is required to enter tertiary training. Useful subjects include English and mathematics.
Air traffic controllers need to be:
- very organised, with the ability to prioritise, plan and make decisions
- able to remain calm under pressure
- able to retain and interpret large amounts of information at one time
- 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.
Air Traffic Controller
Useful experience for air traffic controllers includes:
- work as an aeroplane pilot
- other aviation and navigation experience
- any work dealing with people in stressful situations
- work in industries with a strong health and safety focus, for example, work in emergency services.
Air traffic controllers need to have good hearing and eyesight (with or without corrective lenses), normal colour vision and good spatial awareness. They also need to be reasonably healthy, as they have to pass a medical examination every one to three years.
Find out more about trainingCheck 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 – less than 400 air traffic controllers are employed nationwide. 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 12-18 trainees into the Diploma in Air Traffic Control course each year. Entry into the course is very competitive. Trainees who complete the course and meet other requirements usually get a job.
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.
- Airways New Zealand website, accessed February 2018, (www.airways.co.nz).
- Bradley, G, 'Watch: New air traffic control system in Auckland', New Zealand Herald, November 2017, (www.nzherald.co.nz).
- Bradley, G, 'Airways spending $58m on new system to handle booming air traffic', New Zealand Herald, March 2017, (www.nzherald.co.nz).
- McGrody, J, talent acquisition and retention manager, Airways New Zealand, Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission interview, February 2018.
Progression and specialisations
New air traffic controllers usually work at a regional control tower, dealing with domestic flights only. 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 standard specialists co-ordinate and provide advice on procedures, licensing and standards issues.
- Air Training Centre Instructor
- Air training centre instructors train air traffic controllers.
Last updated 2 March 2018