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This article discusses what an ATCO is and what training and training equipment is required to be licenced for international air traffic control.

What is an ATCO?

Air traffic control officers (ATCOs) are licenced through their State’s National Aviation Authority. This authority oversees the issuance, maintenance and when needed, the revocation of licences issued to air traffic control officers.

To obtain a valid ATCO licence, the air traffic controller must meet specific requirements that prove his or her professional competency and medical fitness for being licenced. These requirements will need to be re-examined at specified intervals for the holder to maintain his or her licence. Depending on the issuing authority, the holder may also need to demonstrate his or her competency in using the English language, which would be added as an endorsement to the ATCO licence.

Over the years there has been a significant increase in the volume of air traffic and new technology has been introduced to air traffic control since the ICAO Annex 1 was published. It has been necessary for more ATCOs to specialize in complex ATC procedures that require advanced controlling.

European Air Traffic Control is always acting in compliance to ICAO directives, but often goes some steps beyond - positioning as a trendsetter of future development in ATC. Therefore it makes sense to also look at European requirements. 

The European ATCO Licence has three types of endorsements:

  1. Rating endorsements
  2. Unit endorsements
  3. Licence endorsement

The ATCO licence remains the property of its holder who is responsible for ensuring it is used for services according to the ratings and endorsements associated with the licence. Additional restrictions may also be linked to the licence, such as requiring the holder comply with wearing corrective spectacles when required.

ICAO Licence versus European ATCO Licence

The new harmonized European ATCO licence has been structured to better match the ATC services being provided to licence qualifications. Its structure also allows for the recognition of additional ATC skills that are associated with newer ATC systems and their controlling procedures. This has not yet been adopted by all EU states. While the new European ATCO licence maintains the basics of the ICAO licence, it includes new ratings. The ICAO Aerodrome Control rating has been divided into two separate ratings:

  1. Aerodrome Control Visual (ADV)
  2. Aerodrome Control Instrument (ADI)

Additional changes from ICAO to the European ATCO licence include:

  • One or more rating endorsements must be associated with the ADI endorsement.
  • Removal of references associated with all equipment, including radar
  • ICAO’s Approach Radar Control and Area Control ratings have been converted to Approach Control Surveillance (APS) and Area Control Surveillance (ACS) ratings that must include an ADS or Radar endorsement
  • Approach Control and Area Control ratings have been renamed to Approach Control Procedural and Area Control Procedural ratings

ATCO Training Structure

New call-to-actionATCO licence candidates must be at 21 years old to be issued a licence. Candidates must meet the minimum experience and medical fitness standards as specified by ICAO.

While ICAO prescribes the minimum requirements, the content of ATCO training plans and depth of knowledge required for each subject area is dictated by the particular state’s Air Traffic Services (ATS) organization. In Europe, the European Air Traffic Management Programme (EATMP) Task Force on Common Core Content (TFCCC) has developed Eurocontrol’s Specification for the ATCO Common Core Content Initial Training that details the subjects, topics and sub-topics covered in basic controller training.

Student or Ab Initio air traffic controllers under go two to three years of theoretical and simulation training at a training institute and the operational unit. Most theoretical subjects are covered over an 8 to 12-week basic course. The student air traffic controller is then supervised by the local training unit at an operational unit where he will become familiar with the air traffic control environment and perform elementary tasks.

When the student returns to their training institute, he will begin with the specialized training required for his chosen discipline:

  • Tower
  • Approach radar
  • En-route control

After eight weeks of simulator training, the student will return to the operational unit to begin unit training. The student generally remains at the local training unit to complete transition training and pre-on-the-job training. This final on-the-job training period may last between 6 to 12 months. Each air traffic control unit has its own minimum experience requirements.

Air Traffic Controller Training Phases

Basic and advanced air traffic controller training is divided into several defined phases:

Phase A – Initial/Institutional Training that is comprised of basic training and rating training at an air traffic controller training institute

  1. Basic training that builds student air traffic controllers’ fundamental knowledge and skills that will enable them to progress to the training needed for their chosen specialization.
  2. Rating training that provides the specialised air traffic control training for gaining the knowledge and skills needed for the student’s chosen specialisation.

The initial training covers such subjects as:

  • Aviation law
  • Air traffic management
  • Aircraft and principles of flight
  • Navigation
  • Meteorology
  • Procedures for civil – military cooperation
  • Human factors, including understanding between air traffic controller and pilot
  • Equipment and systems
  • Professional environment
  • Safety management systems and safety culture
  • Linguistic knowledge, including radiotelephony phraseology
  • Degraded systems
  • Emergency situations

Phase B – Operational Training that is delivered in an operational work environment and consists of:

  1. Transition training, where knowledge and understanding of their training is transferred to students via a variety of methods that allow them to develop their skills by using simulations that are site-specific
  2. Pre-On-the-Job Training (Pre-OJT), which is a locally-based training that requires an extensive use of simulation equipment
  3. On-the-Job Training (OJT), where students will continue to develop and consolidate their acquired skills and routines in a live situation under the supervision of a qualified coach

Phase C – Continuation Training whose purpose is to increase students’ knowledge and skills and/or prepare them for new technologies. This phase includes:

  1. Conversion Training prepares ATCOs with the knowledge and skills needed to make a change in jobs, environment or systems
  2. Refresher Training serves to improve job performance when an ATCO’s skills are not up to the required standard

Required Training Equipment for ATCO Training

Skills-oriented training cannot be limited to theory and books. It needs to be hands-on and with a growing proficiency level that allows it to be closer to the experience of using real life equipment.

Within the Basic ATC training phase will build their skills with simulation equipment, ideally including:

During Rating Training, students will apply their theoretical and practical training when using simulation equipment that includes:

Simulators used for Unit Training include:

ATCOs undergoing Continuation Training, which may include Refresher Training, Emergency Training or Conversion Training will use:

Outlook for ATCO Training

Air controller training content could be affected in the future in accordance to how cognitive skills, psycho-motoric skills, affective skills, and/or social and interactive may evolve. While future controllers will still be required to achieve high levels of knowledge and training, that training could be replaced with newer fields of knowledge as aviation technology continues to evolve. This will also require the evolution of simulation equipment to meet those training needs.

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