40 years of success in selecting air traffic controllers

DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) have been working together for 4 decades on aptitude testing for air traffic control personnel. To date, around 60,000 applicants have been tested for the role of air traffic controller, with more than 4,000 successfully making the grade.

The air traffic controllers at DFS make a key contribution to ensuring the safety of air traffic. Applicants for this position must therefore display special capabilities and the requisite aptitude. Although obviously welcomed, good school or university grades are not the key prerequisites. Instead, candidates are tested systematically in a complex process over four days. The first iterations of these processes used to test the aptitude of candidates were drawn up back in the 1980s by air traffic control experts together with psychologists from the Department of Aerospace Psychology at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. The test procedure has proven highly effective over the past 40 years. It has also been continuously refined to make sure that it is always in line with the latest requirements for those seeking a career in this field.
“Humans are the key factor for ensuring safety in air traffic. Selecting the most suitable applicants is therefore absolutely vital for us,” commented Arndt Schoenemann, Chief Executive Officer at DFS. “We need this young talent so that we can continue to ensure secure air traffic control in future“, he added. “From a personal perspective, I am also delighted that the cooperation with the DLR, which I have learned to truly appreciate over the decades - also in other areas, works so well here“.

Special skills required by air traffic controllers
Among other things, the DLR aptitude test examines a candidate’s spatial awareness skills, as well as testing their memory, concentration and overall ability to work under pressure. Air traffic controllers are selected systematically based on scientifically empirical approaches, which are themselves repeatedly validated and refined in the cooperation between DFS and the DLR. Above all, operational tests in the areas of multi-tasking, auditory information processing and vigilance have therefore been developed and introduced here. In industry, the term vigilance is used to describe a person’s ability to maintain alertness while experiencing similar and therefore monotonous situations – comparable with the ability of a driver to display lightning-fast reactions following a lengthy drive on an empty motorway at night. Since the test focuses primarily on skills and only requires a relatively low level of knowledge, candidates can only take it once.

Successful cooperation at a high scientific level
In international comparisons, the DLR test was the first to incorporate personality screening and examine team skills when selecting air traffic control personnel. Potential future changes in requirements for those seeking to work as air traffic controllers are also taken into account in the aptitude testing.
 “As evidenced by the last 40 years of cooperation between the DLR and DFS, our common use of the latest scientific findings and compliance with the latest standards have enabled us to identify precisely those young people with the greatest aptitude for working in this demanding position“, emphasised Prof Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, CEO at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). “However, the requirements of the air traffic controller profession are sure to change in future. As such, the DLR will continue to use its skills and experience as a way of making an important contribution to ensuring air safety in Germany and climate protection.“
In keeping with the partnership, the selection committee comprises DFS air traffic controllers with training accreditation, as well as a team of aviation psychologists from the DLR. In addition to this, selection procedures for future pilots are organised in the Hamburg-based department of the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. The experts from the DLR are also involved in the astronaut selection procedures of the ESA.

In the current year 2022, DFS used the joint test with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to fill all 140 of its air traffic controller training spots. Similar recruitment figures are also anticipated over the course of the next few years.

Falk Dambowsky, PR
Press | Aviation/Aerospace Editor
Tel: +49 (0)2203 601 3959
Email: falk.dambowsky@dlr.de

Dr Yvonne Pecena, ME
Head of Air Navigation Services
Tel: +49 (0)40 513 096 40
Email: yvonne.pecena@dlr.de

Ute Otterbein
Tel: +49 (0)6103 707 4162
Email: presse@dfs.de

DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH, the German air navigation service provider, is a State-owned company under private law with 5,600 employees as at 30 June 2022. DFS ensures the safe and punctual flow of air traffic over Germany. Around 2,200 air traffic controllers guide more than three million flights through German airspace in peak years, up to 10,000 every day. The company operates control centres in Bremen, Karlsruhe, Langen and Munich, as well as control towers at the 15 designated international airports in Germany. The subsidiary DFS Aviation Services GmbH markets and sells products and services related to air navigation services, and provides air traffic control at nine regional airports in Germany and at Edinburgh Airport in the UK. DFS is working on the integration of drones into air traffic and has set up a joint venture, Droniq GmbH, with Deutsche Telekom. Other subsidiaries include R. Eisenschmidt GmbH, which markets publications and products for general aviation, and Kaufbeuren ATM Training GmbH (KAT), which provides training for military air traffic services personnel. The joint venture FCS Flight Calibration Services GmbH offers flight inspection services. 

The DLR is the German Aerospace Centre. It performs research and development work in the fields of aviation, aerospace, energy and transport, as well as safety and digitalisation. The German Space Agency within the DLR is responsible for planning and implementing Germany’s space activities on behalf of the German government. Two DLR project sponsors supervise funding programmes and support the transfer of knowledge.
The climate, mobility and technology are all changing on a global scale. The DLR uses the knowledge and expertise of its 55 institutes and establishments to develop solutions to tackle these challenges. Its 10,000 employees all share a common mission: to study the earth and the universe, as well as to develop technologies for a sustainable future. Their efforts in this regard help strengthen Germany as a hub for knowledge and business.