ATC (Air Traffic Control) organizes and expedites the flow of air traffic, on ground and in the air. Most of the communication between Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs)↗︎ and pilots is done via radio, on defined and published frequencies. More and more however, datalink communication is replacing the traditional way of sending voice messages over radio.
The majority of air traffic controllers work in Area Control Centers (ACC’s)↗︎, often far away from airports. Only Tower controllers (and at bigger airports the ones responsible for Approach and Departure Control, too) work directly at the airport. From their (often tall and iconic) control towers they have an amazing view over the whole apron, the taxiway and the runway system of their airport.
The role of Air Traffic Control
Thousands of airliners, helicopters, light aircraft, business jets and other aircraft are up in the sky, every hour of every day, around the whole world.
While in parts of the world the density of air traffic is rather low (e.g. over remote oceanic or desert areas), some traffic ‘hotspots’ over Central Europe, the North Atlantic, North America and Asia are a massive challenge for the air traffic control system. Day by day, a huge number of planes and other aircraft have to be safely managed, coordinated and guided through various sections of the available airspace. Often, the military demand their share of the airspace for their own exercises and flight manoeuvers, too.
How do Air Traffic Controllers work?
The task of air traffic control requires highly qualified and trained specialists, stress-resistant and able to cope with day and night shifts all year round.
The first and primary purpose of every air traffic controller is to prevent collisions and provide information and support for pilots. Organizing and expediting the flow of air traffic in his/her sector of the airspace can be a challenging task. To achieve it, ATC enforces traffic separation rules, which ensure each aircraft maintains a minimum amount of empty space around it at all times.
The location of aircraft is shown on radar screens. In case radar is not available, the controller has to continously follow up on the aircrafts’ positions through voice communication with the concerned pilots.
While controllers these days are often surrounded by the latest technology in radar surveillance and data analysis, many of them still work with a pen and a paper strip in front of them!
At all times, the controller is in full charge of ‘his/her’ airspace and issues instructions, clearances or advisories to pilots flying through their respective airspace. In their own interest, pilots are required to follow the controller’s instructions. If, for any reason, a pilot is unable to comply, he/she will advise the controller of this. It’s then up to the controller to come up with an alternative plan.
Legally, the pilot in command↗︎ (normally the Captain) has the final authority of his/her aircraft’s flight path and may decide to disregard or refuse an instruction to maintain the safe operation of their aircraft.
Cover: Control Tower, Edinburgh Airport, UK
Photo Credit: AviationXpert Archive (cover) / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers