Air traffic controller

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
An air traffic controller from the Swiss Skyguide in the tower of Zurich Airport
The most famous place of work for air traffic controllers is the control tower - here in Vienna-Schwechat

An air traffic controller ( Engl. Air traffic controller , air traffic control officer , ATCO ), or (especially in Austria and Switzerland) air traffic controller has the task of the aviation sure properly, liquid and economically to steer. The term pilot comes originally from seafaring and describes an experienced sailor who knows the waters of a coast or a river so well that he can guide ships safely through.


The tasks of air traffic controllers can be described in five categories:

  1. Prevent collisions between aircraft;
  2. Prevent collisions between aircraft and between aircraft and motor vehicles or obstacles on the movement areas of the airfields;
  3. Maintain an accelerated and orderly flow of air traffic;
  4. Provide information and instructions for safe and efficient flight operations;
  5. To inform emergency and rescue services about aircraft in distress and to support these services if necessary.

Air traffic controllers work in various disciplines, which generally depend on the type of air traffic and local conditions. The area controller works in an Area Control Center . In his area of ​​responsibility, mainly aircraft that have reached their cruising altitude and are in so-called "cross-country flight" fly. The approach / departure controller has his workplace in an approach control office . He predominantly controls aircraft that are in flight segments that are associated with approach and departure procedures to and from airports. The tower controller has his workplace in a control tower at an airfield. He is responsible for all aircraft movements on the taxiways, take-off and landing runways as well as for take-offs and landings.

The tripartite division of the work areas described here has a long tradition and dates back to a time when aircraft and airspace organization were far less complex than they are today. Modern air traffic with the extremely demanding mix of different aircraft categories, the requirements of environmental and noise protection and the constraints on highly efficient and economical flights requires constant adaptation of air traffic services. For this reason, the boundaries between the air traffic control categories described above can no longer be so clearly defined. Approach and departure procedures and the associated climb and descent movements of the aircraft extend to heights of 10 km and higher, which were previously only reserved for cross-country flights, in order to save fuel. One example is the “Continuous Descent Operation”, in which an aircraft ideally performs a continuous descent from leaving cruising altitude to landing. This also places special demands on the work of air traffic controllers.

The fact that a control tower always has to be positioned at a controlled airfield will no longer be absolutely necessary in the future. The “Remote Aerodrome Control” concept is being worked on as part of the major European project SESAR. According to this, the air traffic controllers are to be responsible for several controlled airfields at the same time at a central location. A corresponding pilot project was introduced in December 2018 at Saarbrücken Airport . The Erfurt-Weimar Airport and the Dresden airport to be in the future also controlled centrally from Leipzig.

As a rule, the air traffic controller or a team of air traffic controllers has a defined area of ​​responsibility. Aircraft are continuously transferred from one area to the next. The most common means of communication between air traffic controllers and pilots is still aeronautical radio, but direct data connections are also used. The pilot receives releases, instructions and information directly on a display in the cockpit. The standard language for all communication is English.

Air traffic controllers have numerous technical aids at their disposal to carry out their tasks. Radar or satellite-supported monitoring systems are used to display the flight movements. Ground-based as well as on-board collision warning systems are available for the timely detection of potential critical approaches. The air traffic controller can use the projections of flight paths displayed on the radar screen to identify points of conflict that are several minutes in the future. Highly efficient systems also calculate the best possible sequence of aircraft for the approach segments of heavily frequented airports in order to allow the greatest possible number of landings per unit of time. This is only a small part of the technical systems available to air traffic controllers at their workplaces.

In the area of ​​air traffic, the “human system component” is still the greatest uncertainty factor. Therefore one tries to let technical systems do as much routine work as possible. On the other hand, people are the ones who can react efficiently and safely to all eventualities. The latest studies from the SESAR project see people as indispensable at the center of events in the future. Nevertheless, with the rapid increase in automation in all areas of air traffic control, the way air traffic controllers work is also changing. He is increasingly becoming a system manager, who nevertheless must never lose track of things and, if necessary, must be able to intervene within seconds. That is why the human-machine interface and the whole area of human factors are of immense importance.


Those who have passed the respective selection process of the authority or company to which they are applying are admitted to training as an air traffic controller . In most European countries this selection process is very strict, but the advantage is that a successful applicant has around 80–90% chance of successfully completing the training. DFS ( Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH) describes the required applicant profile as follows (excerpt in key words): Abitur , good to very good knowledge of English, pronounced spatial imagination, good memory, interest in technology and above-average concentration. Teamwork, resilient, high sense of responsibility, eyesight 100%, hearing not restricted. The physical suitability is determined by an aviation medical examination , in Germany this is done by the Lufthansa AeroMedical Center in Hamburg. If the examination is successful, air traffic controllers receive a class 3 medical certificate in accordance with the guidelines of the European Aviation Safety Agency . Only then are they entitled to acquire an air traffic controller license.

The training to become an air traffic controller is divided into two parts:

  1. Institutional training in a special training facility. In Germany, this is the DFS air traffic control academy in Langen (Hessen) . In Switzerland there is the Skyguide Training Center in Dübendorf , in Austria the Austro Control Academy in Vienna , in France the École nationale de l'aviation civile (ENAC) in Toulouse , etc.
  2. On-the-job training ("On-The-Job Training").

The institutional training lasts between 1 and 1.5 years, depending on the subsequent area of ​​application. The courses are usually organized according to the areas of airport control ("Tower", location in Germany at an international airport), area control lower airspace and approach control ("Lower", location in Germany in Langen , Bremen or Munich ) and area control upper airspace (" Upper ", location in Germany in Karlsruhe ). In addition to theoretical content in subjects such as air traffic control, aviation law , meteorology , navigation , aeronautics and technology , practical skills are also imparted. In some cases, simulators are used that reflect the real working environment of an air traffic controller almost 1: 1. English language skills are partly a prerequisite, partly they are part of the training: For example, taking the ICAO English test - in contrast to the BZF , which does not have to be completed - is part of the fixed training program, in which at least level 4 must be achieved. After successfully passing all examinations, the prospective air traffic controllers receive the "Student License", which entitles them to further training on the job.

This usually takes place at the intended place of use and takes another 1 to 2 years. Site-specific theoretical knowledge is imparted here, but the focus of the practical training is working at the pilot's workstation under the supervision of an instructor. A practical test (check out) is required for every workplace where the prospective pilot (trainee) is to work independently. At the end of the final exam, the trainee acquires his pilot license, which entitles him to work independently.

This training course described is roughly comparable across Europe. The content, the learning objectives and the requirements for training standards are also largely harmonized by the European guidelines of the European Aviation Safety Agency .

labor union

The air traffic control union (GdF) represents the interests of the DFS air traffic controllers and the regional air traffic controllers of DFS Aviation Services (formerly The Tower Company) and Austro Control (only for controllers who work in German locations).

The air traffic controllers of the Bundeswehr have joined forces in the Federal Association of Military Air Traffic Control Germany .

In Switzerland, six unions are social partners of Skyguide , the Swiss air navigation service provider:

  • Aerocontrol Switzerland, Skycontrol and APTC, all under the umbrella of SwissATCA, which also serves as a professional association
  • Federal Employees' Association (PVB)
  • Syndicom - Media and Communication Union
  • Swiss Association of Personnel in Public Services VPOD / SSP

Air traffic control officer responsibility

In the early days of commercial aviation, the main responsibility for the safety of the aircraft and its occupants lay primarily with the pilot. Since the number of participants in air traffic had increased dramatically since the 1950s and more and more airports had the necessary technical facilities, the responsibility for air traffic safety was increasingly handed over to air traffic controllers since 1950. Today it is hardly possible to fly safely and efficiently without an air traffic controller. The airways are busy with millions of flights every year. Majumdar and Washington (1996) found an average increase in air traffic of 8 percent between 1985 and 1990.

Perceptual tasks of an air traffic controller

An air traffic controller's perceptual work includes identifying information from the control strips (which records what instructions the pilot has already received), listening to the radio, and visually identifying objects on the radar screen. In addition to visual, auditory perception processes are also involved. The processes involved range from the discovery of a signal and its identification to comparison processes. Attention must either be selective (for example in conflict situations), divided (listening to the radio and making notes at the same time) or vigilant (sustained attention, which is usually directed at the radar monitors). Pilots must constantly devote their attention to different tasks. Errors usually arise from a lack of attention capacities or their incorrect allocation.

Mental workload

The mental workload of an air traffic controller is primarily determined by the complexity of the controlled sector, individual differences and its cognitive work strategies. The complexity of the sector depends on the number of flight movements, their dynamic change at peak times, geographical distribution and the average number per working hour.

Situation awareness

Situation awareness as a psychological term can be defined as the perception, interpretation and anticipation of the development of elements of the environment during a certain time within a certain space. The correct situational awareness of a controller can be defined as the conception of factors and initial conditions that enable safe and efficient control of air traffic at certain times. In the case of an air traffic control center, it is also necessary for the team members to exchange their information with one another in order to obtain an image of the entire air traffic to be monitored. In retrospect, pilot errors are usually described as a breakdown in situational awareness. Air traffic controllers usually speak of “losing the picture”.

See also


  • Andreas Fecker: Air traffic controllers. Behind the scenes of aviation . Revised edition. GeraMond Verlag, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-7654-7217-4 .
  • Peter Bachmann: Air traffic control in Germany . Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-613-02521-3 .
  • Andreas Fecker: Profession air traffic controller . Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-613-03261-3
  • James Walter Lehmann: Air traffic controllers from a psychological and socio-technical point of view . University of Bern, 2011, seminar paper.
  • Training as an air traffic controller. In: Aero International No. 12/2016, pp. 44–45

Web links

Wiktionary: Air traffic controller  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. SESAR
  2. Saarbrücken Airport is controlled remotely from Leipzig. Leipziger Volkszeitung, December 4, 2018, accessed on February 11, 2019 .
  3. Skyguide website ( Memento of February 24, 2014 in the Internet Archive ). Retrieved October 10, 2019
  4. ^ Levy, 1968
  5. Metzger & Parasuraman, 2001, Skyguide Website, 2011, Skyguide Training Dossier, 2011
  6. a b Shorrock, 2007
  7. Majumdar & Washington, 1996
  8. ^ Endsley, 1995, quoted from Shorrock, 2007
  9. Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation, 2011
  10. ^ Survey report Überlingen 2004