Selection Procedures for Air Traffic Controllers

Selection Procedures for Air Traffic Controllers


Selection procedures are intended to match the need of air navigation service providers (ANSP) to attract and obtain suitable ab initio air traffic control (ATC) trainees in sufficient numbers. ANSPs are seeking young individuals, who are looking forward to making career decisions, who are able to contribute to the organisation, who can benefit from internal training, who will stay within the organisation and are successful in their career.

Regulation (EC) No 1108/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 repealing Directive 2006/23/EC specifies the general requirements for air traffic controllers and student controllers, stating that: “…a person undertaking training as an air traffic controller or as a student air traffic controller, shall be sufficiently mature educationally, physically and mentally to acquire, retain and demonstrate the relevant theoretical knowledge and practical skill”.


Criteria and Predictors in Pre-selection:

The following criteria (dependent variables) to be predicted should be taken into consideration in recruitment and pre-selection:

  • success in the assessment of ability;
  • success in the selection interview;
  • success in the final selection;
  • success in medical examination;
  • success in security check;
  • success in Initial Training;
  • success in Unit Training which finally leads to an ATC personnel licence .

The general approach in a given selection system is to collect a variety of reliable data from candidates during successive stages of the recruitment and pre-selection process and to combine these data in such a way that candidates with the highest probability of success can be chosen for the institutional and advanced training.

Basic Requirements

Medical Requirements

By applying prescribed medical standards and methods it can be ensured that controller candidates have the level of health required to carry out the duties of an ATCO (e.g. eyesight requirements, irregular working hours).

In general, prescribed International Civil Aviation Organisation (International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)) standards and recommended practices and valid national standards and prescriptions have to be applied.

The cost of ensuring that applicants meet the stipulated medical standards is normally borne by the recruiting authority. Medical testing of applicants before they undertake selection tests or other kinds of assessment would obviously be a waste of resources since not all applicants will be recruited. For this reason most recruiting administrations only perform a medical examination of those applicants who have successfully completed the selection process and whom they intend to recruit. Inevitably, medical failures still occur at this stage of the selection process and are a loss of valuable places in the selection procedure. Most failures to meet ATCO medical standards are due to eyesight deficiencies, visual acuity, colour vision or hearing deficiencies. The reduction in the number of applicants reaching this point in the selection process and failing would be considerable if applicants were required to provide proof, at their own expense, of the fact that they meet certain medical standards. When applicants are provided with an application form or invitation to selection testing they could also be provided with a document (e.g. “Eye Test Certificate”) which clearly states standard vision requirements for the job and instructs them to have the document certified by a competent medical practitioner. The cost and effort required to do this should not be a deterrent for a properly motivated applicant. This procedure may be adopted in other medically important areas as hearing.


An important part of the selection policy to be agreed within the organisation is to clearly define the lower and upper age limits for direct entry. When defining a lower age limit, legal and other national obligations have to be fulfilled (e.g. concerning acquisition of a controller licence). The maturity and sense of responsibility of candidates entering the service should be taken into account when setting age limits. When defining an upper age limit, a number of factors should also be taken into account e.g. the risk of training failures related to learning abilities, working lifetime, duration of the training, mixed age group, flexibility, alertness, decision speed. Experience has shown that the ability to acquire the skills necessary for executing ATC duties begin to decline at a relatively early age. More mature controller candidates have developed skills based on experience that to some extent offset the negative effects of age. After a controller has been trained his/her increased experience may counteract the effect of age but the extent to which it does is individual. It becomes more difficult to train controllers as they get older especially if they cannot use their experience and expertise in the long term. Older controllers may have more difficulty adapting to evolutionary changes in the design and operation of the ATC system. Further, new skills cannot be learned as easily by older controller candidates because some well established habits and cognitive strategies have to be broken or changed. Around half of ECAC States canvassed by a questionnaire have an upper age limit of 25 years or less.

Educational Requirements

Candidates must have attained a level of education sufficient to enable them to acquire the skills necessary for the job and the knowledge and understanding of the concepts encountered during ATCO training. Although a good level of education is required, academic over qualification might lead to problems due to boredom or job dissatisfaction. There are two ways of ensuring that applicants have attained the stipulated education level:

  • by requiring them to produce established, recognised and accepted certificates (e.g. Abitur, Matura) or;
  • by subjecting them to tailor-made examinations. Common practice in ECAC States is to require University Entrance Level (Matura, Abitur etc.) qualifications as the minimum educational level for ab initio trainee controllers.

ATCOs are also required to have English language knowledge. Applicants may be required to prove that they have reached a certain standard (e.g. comparable to Cambridge First Certificate) or may be trained to the required level after recruitment. Nearly 75% of the non-English speaking countries surveyed require ATC applicants to have pre-knowledge of English language while 55% of these States provide English training after recruitment. In exceptional circumstances exemptions from normal educational requirements and upper age limits may be granted to applicants who have undergone a technically orientated secondary school education or who have a certain basic pre-knowledge of aviation (e.g. holders of radio-telephony, military or civil ATC, or pilot’s qualifications). Previous experience in aviation can be an advantage but may also be a drawback, for example in those cases where incorrect or outdated knowledge has been absorbed or unsound skills or practices acquired.

Provisions of ICAO Annex 1 and the related requirements for language proficiency of at least operational level 4, may impose a minimum level of general English competence for the candidates in order to facilitate the training in Aviation English and Radio Phraseology.

National Obligations

The obligation to perform military or civil service is a factor in approximately two-thirds of the States surveyed. Absence for a long period normally associated with such national service after ATC training is likely to lead to a rating decline and / or loss of validation. It is therefore desirable that basic military or other public substitute service is completed before beginning ATC training. Applicants will also have to meet the national security requirements defined for ATS personnel.

Personality Assessment

Personality factors are considered next in importance to ability factors when selecting ATCO candidates. In fact, about two-thirds of States surveyed conduct some sort of personality test or assessment during the selection process. It should be noted that as far as personality is concerned there are no absolutes and it is not recommended that personality tests alone be used as the selection method. Personality tests can however help to provide a more complete picture of a person. Care must be taken in order to correctly interpret and use these data during selection and decision-making. Personality factors that can be considered relevant are as follows:

Motivation and Achievement

The maintenance of energy and persistence in order to reach an objective despite obstacles and difficulties, boredom and distraction while maintaining a positive attitude towards the task. Indicators of this factor are: need to achieve, persistence, resilience, vitality, readiness to acquire new knowledge and skills, responsibility. 67% of ECAC States conduct tests to assess the motivation and achievement need of applicants.

Decision-Making Behaviour

The ability to make the correct responses in complex situations where several reactions are possible, taking time pressure into account. Related personality traits are: flexibility, creativity and dominance. Decision-making behaviour is assessed by 59% of States in the selection process.

Social Behaviour

The need to develop contacts and working relationships with other persons and to act accordingly. Related personality traits are: extroversion vs. introversion, dominance or assertiveness, empathy, aggression etc. In interpersonal and group activities social behaviour is indicated by verbal and non-verbal expression and social sensitivity and tolerance with respect to individual needs and cultural differences. With regard to team behaviour a situation dependent and group-oriented leadership style, the acceptance of team objectives, tasks and roles and striving towards consensus are possible indicators. Social behaviour, especially team and communication skills, are considered and assessed by 59% of the States surveyed.

Stress Coping

The behavioural tendency to cope with external and/or internal stress in such a way that efforts can be effectively directed in order to maintain control and to reach objectives. Related personality traits are: emotional stability, flexibility and aggression. Stress coping is indicated by the capability of individuals to detect and evaluate stressful situations appropriately and to develop and implement effective cognitive and behavioural strategies in order to master them. Not all the personality factors discussed may be assessed adequately using tests or questionnaires. The use of more direct behaviour-related assessment methods should be considered as an option. About one-third of the States (38%) surveyed use assessment centre methods to obtain more behaviour oriented personality data from applicants.

Observations of an applicant’s behaviour during a test (e.g. when undergoing apparatus tests such as multi-tasking) can also provide useful information (e.g. concerning stress resistance).

Selection Tests

Selection tests are used (in conjunction with other information, for example, from application forms or from interviews) to make predictions about later performance of individuals in training and/or in the job, and to arrive at decisions whether an applicant should be accepted or rejected. Tests refer to a great variety of published diagnostic, prognostic and evaluative devices of either the constructed performance or structured behaviour sample. The following information aims to provide a fair understanding of the major categories of tests.

Performance Testing

Test instruments can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Constructed Performance Tasks: These are tests (e.g. conventional standardised ability tests), which are designed to isolate and assess particular psychological constructs (e.g. spatial comprehension) without actually simulating the environment (e.g. the ATC environment). The media in use for these tests are paper-and-pencil, computer and oral exchange.
  • Questionnaires and Inventories: These are tests (e.g. personality or interest inventories) through which people can be asked to report personal interests, attitudes and typical reactions to situations which might be faced on the job. The media used are paper-and-pencil or computer.
  • Structured, Observable Behaviour Samples: These tests provide standardised assessments of complex skills and working styles relevant, for example, to simulated ATC decision-making, to ATC communication skills, or to styles of performance under workload stress or in the face of complex airspace (after CDSEPT, 1999). These tests are mainly computer-based and require trained observers / assessors who make assessments during testing.

Tests usually include:

  • standardised instruments to measure cognitive, perceptual or physical abilities, non-cognitive abilities and achievement in more complex tasks;
  • interest inventories to measure vocational or avocational interests;
  • personality questionnaires (or inventories) to measure personality traits or behavioural tendencies (CDSEPT, 1999).


Testing refers to a measurement or assessment process whereby one obtains a quantifiable estimate of some aspect of current performance. Most tests consist of constructed tasks, i.e. specifically designed test items upon which performance is measured. An evident example is the task of answering a question. An important distinction between tests relates to the measurement situation where there are two broad categories:

Tests of Maximum Performance

The test takers are expected or instructed to do their best in the test (e.g. in ability tests, intelligence tests, work sample tests, knowledge tests, achievement tests).

This category of tests is further sub-divided into:

  • Speed Tests where test takers are requested to work as fast (and accurate) as possible sometimes for a very short period of time. Some ability tests are speeded because a ‘true’ speed test consists of items which, if given in a longer period of time, would be correctly answered by virtually everybody. Examples of such items are computational speed, e.g. addition and subtraction of simple sets of digits (Kline, 1995). Typical test examples are concentration tests, perceptional speed tests and some tests in an intelligence test battery, etc. The performance measured is typically the number of correctly solved test items. Most ability tests used in ab initio trainee selection are speed tests.
  • Power Tests where test takers are requested to solve more complex problems and find the correct answer for them. Power tests are usually untimed and over a longer period of time, where test takers are given as long as they need to complete the test. However, the overall time limits normally allow that all items of the test can be tackled. The performance in the test will depend on the knowledge and skills of test takers. Normally, the number of correct solved items is counted, taking into account guessing. Most achievement tests are power tests. This category of tests is also used in selection of ab initio trainees (e.g. English knowledge tests, tests for technical understanding).

Habitual Performance Test

The test takers are requested to report or otherwise indicate what they believe or feel, or how they would habitually act in a given situation (e.g. described in a personality questionnaire or inventory).

First European Air Traffic Controller Selection Test (FEAST)

The First European Air Traffic Controller Selection Test is a test developed and used by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL). It was created for those wishing to become air traffic controllers and aids selection of suitable candidates. The FEAST Service makes available to civil and military Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) worldwide and CAA accredited ATC training institutions a selection tool for use in the recruitment and selection of trainee Air Traffic Control (ATC) candidates. The tool is flexible enough to meet the varied requirements of ANSPs worldwide.

The FEAST test package is a professional state-of-the-art web-based testing tool, which improves the quality of selection decision making by ATC recruiters. FEAST also contributes to the cost efficiency of the overall recruitment and selection process and to the goal of reducing the costs associated with failure of ATC trainees. The test package is provided as part of the FEAST Service on the basis of the User Pays Principle. .

Note: For additional information see the dedicated article FEAST on SKYbrary.

Cost-Benefit in Selection Procedures

In recruitment and selection, relatively small sums of money are involved and the emphasis is on providing value for money in the ATC service. Even a poor selection system is capable of performing better than selecting at random from the applicant population. The aim is to provide an evaluation framework which can be used by any ATS provider in making changes to its current process for recruitment and selection. Those actions which should be undertaken as part of a process improvement programme could be identified and justified.

Minimisation of Costs While Satisfying Operational Needs for New Controllers

In conventional capital appraisal there is normally a small number of feasible options to evaluate and compare. In recruitment and selection there is a large number of changes which could be made at each stage of the process and each of these changes will have an impact on all of the subsequent stages. Conceptually there is a set of changes which could be applied so as to optimise the cost-benefit of the process as a whole. The CBA framework which is set up should explain the interaction between the changes made at the different stages of the process.

Measurement of Error Costs

The purpose of recruiting and selecting ab initio trainee controllers is to provide the exact number of trainees required to fill the number of places available on each planned training course. Ideally, a successful selection system will identify trainees who have the potential ability to undertake training, pass all the examinations and tests which are set during training and emerge as licensed ATCOs who are capable of pursuing successful careers working for an ATS provider. One way of measuring the effectiveness of the recruitment and selection process is to calculate the cost of two types of error:

  • The first is that a candidate is selected who, it later emerges, does not have the required ability to complete the training course successfully or operate as a licensed controller.
  • The second is that a candidate is rejected during the selection process – due to a less than perfect selection - who would have had the ability to complete the training course and turn out to be a successful ATCO.

Consequences of Error

The consequence of the first source of error is that an ANSP is investing in training candidates who may eventually fail. If failure takes place during training no return will ever be provided on the investment, and the longer the person stays in training the more costly the investment will be. An exception would be if that person could be employed in some other capacity in the ATS organisation. The consequence of the second source of error is that time and money will be spent on putting someone through the selection process who would have filled a vacancy and succeeded in the job but is rejected by a less than perfect selection process. An additional cost will be incurred by putting someone else through the system to fill this vacancy. From the standpoint of a perfectly effective selection system, each of these costs is unnecessary. However, both types of error are inevitable in any practical recruitment and selection system. The magnitude of the errors can be altered by changing parameters in the selection process, for example, by increasing the validity of the test battery. But the general difficulty will remain: reducing one type of error may invariably cause the other type to increase.

Trade-offs Between Costs and Benefits

When setting up or modifying a recruitment and selection system there are many choices and decisions which need to be made, all of which will affect the outcome and the overall cost of the system. Some of these choices are:

  • Whether to aim for blanket coverage in advertising campaign so that large numbers of people will be aware of vacancies and will consider their suitability to fill these vacancies, or whether to structure the advertising campaign to target only those people who have a strong interest in aviation.
  • Whether to use a small number of tests which are known to have high reliability and validity in the selection of ATCOs, or whether to use a broad range of general tests, some of which may not have been specifically validated for ATC but which may add value to the process when validation has been achieved.
  • Whether to set cut-off scores in selection tests high so that a small number of people are selected and progress to the next stage of the process with a relatively high probability of success, or whether to set cut-off scores low so that a large number of people are selected with a relatively low probability of success at later stages.
  • Whether to make frequent decisions about whether an applicant should proceed to the next stage of the process, perhaps after every individual test, or whether to delay a decision until all the test results are available.
  • Whether to reject an applicant unreservedly if he or she scores below the cut-off point, or whether to allow the applicant to re-sit a test if their score lies within a predefined range.

See also The Use of Interviews as Part of ATCO Selection Process on SKYbrary.

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