Study of Selection Procedures for Air Traffic Controllers

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Study of Selection Procedures for Air Traffic Controllers

19TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Toronto, Canada, 05-09 May 1980

WP No. 38

Study of Selection Procedures for Air Traffic Controllers


A questionnaire was distributed to all Member Associations after the 1979 Conference. Twenty five replies were received (see annex). In general there was uniformity in the answers given which basically agree with the IFATCA and/or ICAO policy. Differences were perceived on topics such as the composition of selection boards, the criteria sought by these boards and a desire for more efficient psychological testing of candidates. It is not proposed to tabulate all the replies received from the questionnaires but to make comment on each question as it was presented to the Member Associations.



Age: from 18 years to 30 years (35 years in the case of adult entrants).

Brief details of educational qualifications: matriculation/university entrance/secondary or equivalent plus a good knowledge of the English language (or French).

Aviation knowledge required: NO – 17, YES – 3, Desirable – 5.

Any discrimination between the sexes: YES – 5 (sometimes there is no official discrimination but female candidates for selection are more carefully tested particularly for motivation). NO – 20 (in some countries sex discrimination is illegal).


Is any medical examination required? YES – 25

Standard of medical (e.g. equivalent to CPL, ATPL etc): For almost everyone – ICAO Annex 1 standard, others have a medical equivalent to the requirements for a PPL or a general medical examination (in the case of some military personnel).


Composition of selection board (e.g. Civil Service Administrator, Air Traffic Controller, Psychologist etc.): In most cases an Administrator plus a senior Controller (but not often an operational controller is present and only occasionally a psychologist).

Who do you think SHOULD be on the selection board? Unanimously : (i) operational controller – supervisor or training officer, Psychologist familiar with air traffic control. (ii) However, it is important that all board members should have received training in selection and assessment techniques.

What are the criteria sought by the board? The criteria varied considerably from good educational qualifications to those criteria considered my MAs to be desirable.

What criteria do you think the board SHOULD be looking for? MA’s produced a long list of desirable criteria. The main points being :

  • adaptability and flexibility;
  • motivation;
  • will accept challenge and successfully compete a task;
  • accept responsibility;
  • sound judgement;
  • able to make quick, correct decisions;
  • an individual yet able to work with others;
  • good standard of English language
  • articulate in speech;
  • good physical and mental health;
  • the attitude towards discipline/authority/shift work.


In selection by:

(a)  written application;

(b)  interview;

(c)  psychological testing;

(d)  group exercises or games.

Indicate by check mark those which apply and by number the order in which they occur:

Almost all selections start with a written application followed by an interview, (sometimes there is an initial interview with one person). Not every administration uses psychological (or aptitude) tests and few involve candidates in-group exercises. The medical is usually only taken by those candidates who successfully pass all other stages of selection. One MA reports that all candidates must undergo a medical examination at their own expense before the selection procedure starts.

Indicate your comments about the above processes:

(i)  adequate/satisfactory: 10

(ii)  some form of psychological testing needed

(iii)  exercises on a simulator could be useful

(iv)  the behavior of candidates with regard to ATC is not always apparent in written tests and interviews.

SC4 comment on:

(ii)  suitable psychological or aptitude tests specifically designed for ATC are being evaluated in some countries. The process will however take a number of years to develop. There are very few psychologists who specialise in ATC behavioural characteristics.

(iii)  such exercises are being developed at the Eurocontrol Institute. Originally designed to aid individual learning of basic radar skills by permitting a direct conversational process between student and simulator the exercises can be adapted to discover the ability a candidate possesses for the determination of distance, orientation, perspective etc.

(iv)  Written tests and interviews should be conducted by people trained in these skills. Characteristics not suited to ATC could then be detected at an early stage.

Do you consider these processes to be successful?

YES: 11

Satisfactory: 2

Adequate: 1

Under evaluation: 1

Partially: 4

NO: 7

What changes and improvements could be made?

(i)  operational controller on selection board;

(ii)  better interview techniques;

(iii)  more psychological tests;

(iv)  candidates to have a broader knowledge of the ATC environment and of what the job entails – therefore an improved job description should be given to applicants;

(v)  probe the motives – less reliance on paper qualifications;

(vi)  select from people with a more varied background and education.

Do these processes eliminate bias and prejudice: YES: 12 NO: 9

but many asked if this elimination was really desirable. Female candidates often have more prejudice to overcome. Selection boards frequently look for “officer” material i.e. candidates should possess some of the characteristics normally sought by Commissioning Boards of the Armed Forces.


Reviewing the system of selecting young people for training as air traffic controllers in your country are you basically satisfied with the procedures for selection. If not, give brief details:

Reasonably satisfied but room for improvement: 17

Not satisfied: 8

What proposals would you like to make with reference to?

The system of selection: better feedback between operational units and the selectors, more operational controllers on the selection board, psychological testing, look for the ability for teamwork in candidates, check temperament and attitudes, candidates spend one week at an ATC unit before the interview.

The people selected: with special reference to the detection of attitudes which are not conducive to the work of the Air Traffic Services:more care taken at the interview stage

Motivation: is candidate applying for civil service or ATC students to work as ATC assistants for a period? observation and feedback during initial training.


IFATCA already has a policy governing the selection of air traffic controllers. From the replies received to the questionnaire it would appear that in some countries there exists a procedure for selection somewhat different from that proposed by IFATCA. From the replies to the questionnaire SC5 believes that selection procedures could be improved if some of the following points were to be considered:

(i)  Selection board to include an operational controller and a psychologist/ psychiatrist familiar with air traffic control;

(ii)  All members of the selection board to have received suitable training in selection and assessment techniques;

(iii)  The criteria sought by the selection board should be well defined;

(iv)  More information about the job made available to candidates before the selection interview;

(v)  Continued research and evaluation to determine the most suitable psychological and aptitude tests for ATC;

(vi)  Feedback during the initial training period between training officers and the selection board so as to further improve the system and thus reduce the drop- out rate.

The high standards to be maintained by an air traffic unit or ATC system are dependent to a large extent on the quality of the instruction given during training. However, even the best craftsman cannot produce a masterpiece from poor materials. If the selection procedure is unable to consistently produce candidates who possess the ability and aptitude to become good air traffic controllers then it is the ATC system and ultimately air safety which is compromised. Nor can the economic penalty of failures and dropouts during training be ignored, notwithstanding the long-term effect on the motivation of training personnel and students. Psychological testing for ATC is still in its infancy. Much work remains to be done before a reliable series of tests will be available. SC5 would welcome any information about such tests which MAs may be aware of or have in their possession.


It is recommended that there should be no discrimination between the sexes in the selection of air traffic controllers.

It is recommended that MAs co-operate with those responsible for the selection of air traffic controllers in their country and obtain agreement on:

(a) the composition of the selection board including representation by the MA were appropriate;

(b) on a definite list of criteria which would be sought by the board; and

(c) the procedures of the selection process.

It is recommended that the paper be accepted as Guidance Material.

Reference Documentation

SC5 questionnaire No. 1/1979

Extracts from the Canadian Department of Transport Handbook (ATC), Personnel Licensing

CAA (UK) Document No. 168, Selection of ATCO Cadets


List of Member Associations who answered Questionnaire No. 1:

Austria, Belgium, Canada, Channel Islands, Cyprus, Denmark, Eurocontrol, Germany, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Uruguay.

Last Update: September 19, 2020  

November 23, 2019   443   Jean-Francois Lepage    1980    

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