Licensing of ATCOs

Licensing of ATCOs

58TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Conchal, Costa Rica, 20-24 May 2019

Agenda Item: C.6.8 – WP No. 159

Licensing of ATCOs

Presented by PLC


Should it be mandatory for Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) to be licensed or not? This paper addresses concerns raised by some Member Associations (MAs), where States are not licensing ATCOs. It argues that licensing is an effective mechanism for ensuring the ongoing competency of ATCOs. Where States do not license ATCOs, there is the possibility that the standards, processes and procedures that ensure the ongoing competency of ATCOs are not as transparent nor robust as they could be, potentially compromising the safety of a State’s Air Traffic System. It discusses the benefits of licensing and the shortcomings of not licensing ATCOs. It explores ICAO Annex 1 (Personnel Licensing) and IFATCA policy.


1.1. Annex 1 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) details the standards and recommended practices (SARPs) for personnel licensing. Although not defined in the Annex, a licence per definition is a permit from an authority to own or use something, do a particular thing, or carry on a trade.

1.2. According to SKYbrary, licensing is a system of standards, processes and procedures to ensure that personnel undertaking safety related tasks in civil aviation (pilots, air traffic controllers, aircraft maintenance engineers, etc.) are competent to perform their tasks to the prescribed standards (Personnel Licensing (n.d.). Retrieved 18 March, 2019, from

1.3. Licences are used throughout society because they are an effective mechanism to regulate individuals, companies and organisations, particularly those that perform safety critical tasks. Supported by effective standards, processes and procedures, they can ensure that those performing safety critical tasks are competent.

1.4. Most States have a licensing system for ATCOs. However, although the SARPs for the licensing of ATCOS are contained within Annex 1, an ATCO licence is not mandatory. Unlicensed State employees may operate as air traffic controllers on condition they meet the same requirements (ICAO, Annex 1 – Personnel Licensing (ICAO, Eleventh ed, July 2011) at 4.4.1.).

1.5. Annex 1 sets out the applicable ATCO standards for the rating, validation, medical fitness, aviation English and procedures for acquiring a licence, keeping the licence valid, renewal of the licence and even provisions for withdrawal of ATC licence under certain conditions. Where all these conditions are met, the ATCO is licensed to perform an air traffic control service. Where they are not, the ATCO cannot perform an air traffic control service.

1.6. However, where States choose not to license ATCOs, the concern is how compliance with all of these standards, processes and procedures is assured. For example, how do these States monitor the initial and recurrent qualifications of ATCO ratings, validations, English Language Proficiency (ELPs), medicals and any other ATCO endorsements? In some cases, States issue an ATCO with a certificate of completion after initial training however, there must still be a system to provide assurance that the ongoing requirements to remain competent in performing their duties are being met.

1.7. This paper argues that licensing is an effective mechanism for ensuring the ongoing competency of ATCOs. Where States do not license ATCOs, there is the possibility that the standards, processes and procedures are not as transparent potentially compromising the safety of a State’s Air Traffic System.


2.1 IFATCA Policy

2.1.1. WC 8.1.3:

For the purpose of guaranteeing safety, ATCOs shall not be replaced by personnel who do not hold ATC licences in accordance with ICAO Annex 1, with the ratings, recency and competency appropriate to the duties that they are expected to undertake for the position and unit at which those duties are to be performed.

The functions which are contained within ICAO Annex 1, as being ATC functions shall not be added to the work responsibilities for unlicensed personnel.


2.1.2. WC 8.2.2:

ATC management staff directly concerned with executive air traffic control matters should have a thorough knowledge of air traffic control and be holders of an air traffic controller’s licence and, to remain fully conversant with current air traffic control problems, their knowledge should be continually updated.


2.1.3. Neither of these policies directly address the issues identified in this working paper. In the case of WC 8.1.3, ICAO Annex 1 allows unlicensed State employees to operate as air traffic controllers on condition they meet the same requirements (ICAO Annex 1, Personnel Licensing, 4.4.1.). Arguably, WC 8.2.2 only applies to ‘ATC management staff directly concerned with executive air traffic control matters’ and requires that this group hold a licence. It does not apply to ATCOs generally. There is an opportunity to amend policy to address the issues identified in this paper.

2.2 Benefits of ATCO licensing

2.2.1. Licensing is a commonly used tool for ensuring standards are met and maintained. For instance, a drivers’ licence ensures not only that the holder has passed a standardised competency test, but should there be evidence of falling below an expected level of competency (e.g. too many speeding tickets), a person can be prevented from driving by the State by removing the licence. Licensing can apply doctors, hospitals, even butchers. A licence gives confidence to the users of a service or a product because it affirms that minimum standards have been met.

2.2.2. For ATCOs, a licence prescribes rights, privileges, requirements and validity to provide an air traffic control service. The State can ensure that the privileges granted by the licence are not exercised unless the holder is competent and meets the requirements for recent experience established by that State. Regulators and ANSPs can more easily specify the standard that has to be achieved.

2.2.3. States can decide to renew or not to renew the licence depending on whether or not the holder of the licence exercised the privileges to the specified criteria and passed all prerequisite exams during the period prior to intended renewal. States can also use the licence to ensure the holder maintains competency and requirement for experience established by that State.

2.2.4. Licensing can also be used to ensure that ATCOs transferring from one facility to another meet a minimum level of competency. Where competencies differ because different ratings apply, these differences can be more easily identified and therefore allow targeted training to compensate.

2.2.5. Finally, the licensing requirements and standards as specified in the Annex 1 were created with the benefit of much research and consultation. Provided that a State only issues an ATCO licence when these requirements and standards are met, the licence provides a level of assurance that the ATCO is performing their role safely. Where States choose not to license ATCOs, there is not the same level of assurance.

2.2.6. However, it should be acknowledged that a licence in itself does not ensure that ATCOs are competent. Rather, for the reasons above, it is the licensing system that can be an effective tool in a suite of tools, than can give assurance to the State and other stakeholders that there are processes in place to ensure ATCOs are competent.

2.3 Requirements for an ATCO licensing system

2.3.1. The actual standards, processes and procedures that States have in place to ensure ATCO competency, recency, validity, etc. is beyond the scope of this paper. It is assumed that all States have a system whereby a person is deemed to be competent to have the authority to provide an air traffic control service. The difference between a State that uses licences and one the doesn’t is that the former uses a licence to demonstrate that an ATCO has met the minimum requirements to provide the service for which the licence allows.

2.3.2. For those States that don’t have a licensing system for ATCOs, implementation requires that these standards, processes and procedures are clearly defined and that the level of competency that needs to be attained is also clearly defined. In determining ATCO licensing requirements, compliance with both national and international regulations needs to be assured.

2.3.3. Often, a State may consider appointing a Licensing Authority to ensure compliance with the requirements of the ATC Licence once issued. This ensures a central repository for the ongoing maintenance of the ATCO licensing requirements and provides a means to train competent assessors responsible for licensing. Other functions of a licensing authority can include:

  • ensuring the prerequisite training and qualifications so that holders of a Licence are fully equipped to perform as per the ratings or any other endorsements contained in the ATC Licence;
  • notifying ICAO of differences with ICAO SARPs in the event that the licensing requirements differ from those in Annex 1;
  • regular checking, monitoring and testing to ensure ATCOs are meeting the standard required; and
  • where necessary, revoking a licence and prescribing re-training where the requirements of the licence are not met.

2.3.4. Annex 1 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) provides the following for Licensing Authorities:

Licensing Authority. The Authority designated by a Contracting State as responsible for the licensing of personnel.

Note.— In the provisions of this Annex, the Licensing Authority is deemed to have been given the following responsibilities by the Contracting State:

a) assessment of an applicant’s qualifications to hold a licence or rating;

b) issue and endorsement of licences and ratings;

c) designation and authorization of approved persons;

d) approval of training courses;

e) approval of the use of flight simulation training devices and authorization for their use in gaining the experience or in demonstrating the skill required for the issue of a licence or rating; and

f) validation of licences issued by other Contracting States.

2.4. Why some countries are not licensing ATCOs

2.4.1. A survey of IFATCA Member Associations (MAs) where States did not issue ATCO licences was undertaken. The survey was conducted via telephone interviews and questionnaires. Most of the MAs sampled in the survey originated from the IFATCA Africa and Middle East Region.

2.4.2. Some respondents felt that States may be concerned that if they license ATCOs, it may encourage ATCOs to look further afield for employment opportunities. Whilst this may occur, this must be weighed against the safety benefit of an ATS system that results from the licensing of ATCOs. It should also be noted that the lack of licence alone will not prevent ATCOs from seeking employment elsewhere. The most effective way to attract and retain ATCOs is by providing competitive wages and conditions.

2.4.3. Related to this, some respondents also felt that states viewed a licence as a means to increase the market value of ATCOs which may result in the ATCO wanting to negotiate for better salary and allowances. However, this dynamic can exist whether or not an ATCO is licensed and cannot justify forgoing the real safety benefits a licensing system can offer.

2.4.4. Other arguments respondents provided for States not licensing ATCOs included the increased costs of training, competency checks, compliance with international standards, medical fitness, English Language Proficiency etc. However, all of these should occur anyway regardless of whether a State has a licensing system. A licensing system is just a tool to ensure this happens more effectively.

2.4.5. Some respondents also reported that some States were simply not aware of the ATC licensing processes and requirements and chose to avoid what they saw as a complicated and expensive undertaking.

2.4.6. Finally, in some unfortunate and rather disturbing instances, MAs reported that States avoided licensing of ATCOs so that they could easily replace them in case of a labour dispute. Several times ATCOs in some States have been subjected to unacceptable working conditions which led to Labour disputes with their ANSPs. In some instances, ATCOs were summarily dismissed by their ANSP. As there was no requirement for licensed ATCOs, these States were able to recruit unlicensed ATCOs. The result was ATCOs performing an air traffic service with no assurance that they were competent. This can have potentially disastrous consequences.

2.5. The consequences of not licensing ATCOs

2.5.1. Although not a requirement by ICAO Annex 1, a licensing system can provide a simple and transparent means to ensure an ATCO remains current on standards and procedures. The relatively simple requirement for ATCOs to complete annual competency checks and written examinations to be eligible for a licence helps ensure satisfactory performance. Although this can occur without a licensing system, more complicated process may result in ATCO checks and examinations ‘falling through the cracks’, resulting in compromised safety standards.

2.5.2. ATC is not a one state affair but a regional and global affair. If one state has different standards, then it can affect the seamless service provision in neighbouring states. For example, if a state decides to be guided by different standards (e.g. different separation standards), it may affect the seamlessness of ATC service in a particular region. The same can be said of States that have difference standards for ATCOs. Licensing can provide the means for neighbouring States to harmonise their ATCO standards to give an effective, transparent means of providing assurance that ATCO standards are being maintained.

2.5.3. The harmonisation of standards and recommended practices is one of the fundamental principles of international agreements such as the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention). Complying with the licensing provisions of an international body like ICAO ensures that service provision is not only harmonised but is of an international quality and standard.

2.5.4. Finally, complying with internationally recognised standards provides confidence to airspace users including major international airlines. Not only does this provide a safer outcome, but it can encourage these airlines to provide more services to States that comply with international standards. This can provide obvious benefits such as increased tourism for a State and increased navigational charges for the ANSP.


3.1. Licensing of ATCOs provides essential safety benefits for the provision of air traffic services. Not licensing ATCOs does not just affect one state but an entire region in the event of non-compliance of ATC procedures due to lack of ATC Licence. This was demonstrated in a recent situation where striking ATCOs were replaced with unlicensed ATCOs thus leading to unsafe situations being reported in neighbouring FIRs.

3.2. A licence is beneficial both to the individual ATCO and to the state. To the individual ATCO it provides a system of ensuring international standards are observed. To the state it is an effective and transparent means of providing assurance to stakeholders that they are complying with world’s best practice. This translates to good business as more people around the world have confidence in the State’s air navigation system.

3.3. It is important that ICAO contacting states harmonise their standards and procedures with regard to licensing of ATCs.

3.4. ICAO recommendation as per Annex 1 paragraph 4.4.1 states that unlicensed State employees may act as ATCs for as long as they meet the same requirements for one of the ratings set out in paragraph 4.5. leaves room for misuse and is not as effective as a licensing system in ensuring standards are maintained.

3.5. Taking all the information in consideration IFATCA policy should be changed to indicate the Federations objection to the current ICAO Annex 1. IFATCA should where possible influence ICAO with regards to Annex 1 (Personnel Licensing) and the licensing of ATCOs.


It is recommended that the following be accepted as policy and inserted to the TPM.


IFATCA recommends that State Regulators consider the advantages of implementing an ATCO licensing system to provide assurance to domestic and international stakeholders that ATCO standards are being met and maintained. WC


IFATCA recommends that ANSPs consider the advantages of an ATCO licensing system as an effective tool not only to harmonise ATCO standards, but to give an effective, transparent means of providing assurance that ATCO standards are being met and maintained.


ICAO. (2017) Annex 1, PERSONNEL LICENSING 11th Ed,174th Amendment. International Civil Aviation Organisation: Montreal, Canada.


IFATCA Technical and Professional Manual 2018.

Last Update: October 2, 2020  

November 19, 2019   337   Jean-Francois Lepage    2019    

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