What Is An Air Traffic Controller?
- Air Traffic Controllers can be employed by the federal government, private companies, local governments, and even the military.
- The common language in air traffic control throughout the entire world is english.
- On average, air traffic controllers have one of the highest paying jobs in the world.
The primary role of an air traffic controller is to separate aircraft and provide
them safe, orderly, and expeditious movement from one place to the next. Air
Traffic Controllers are responsible for virtually every bit of airspace around
the world. Most of the major facilities are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This means air traffic controllers are subject to long hours, shift work, and working on holidays.
There are four types of facilities that a person can be assigned as an air
traffic controller. Center/EnRoute, Tower only, Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) only, or Tower/TRACON combined. The tower handles all the aircraft on the airport and immediately surrounding the airport. Once the aircraft leaves the boundaries of the tower, the tower controller hands them off to the TRACON. The TRACON is responsible for the area immediately surrounding the airport and extending from 20 to over 100 miles and generally from 10,000 to 15,000 feet. Once the aircraft passes those boundaries, they are handed off to the Center/EnRoute controller. This process repeats itself backwards as the aircraft begins the descent to its destination.
Center/EnRoute | Area Controller
As a Center/EnRoute controller, you will be assigned to an Air Route Traffic
Control Center (ARTCC). Centers are responsible for thousands of square miles of airspace and generally handle aircraft 10,000 - 18,000 feet and above. In less populated areas, centers may handle aircraft below 10,000 ft, actually providing guidance to aircraft into airports. Depending on which center one is assigned, a controller may be responsible for an oceanic sector which means you will actually have
control of the aircraft over the oceans bordering the United States. Air traffic controllers separate aircraft primarily by RADAR, but can use other means when RADAR coverage does not exists, such as spacing aircraft by time.
Centers generally handle Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) aircraft. Aircraft flying IFR rely on air traffic controllers for all vectors (turns), altitude
assignments, and separation from other aircraft. The other type of aircraft a
center may handle is visual flight rules (VFR). Center controllers provide VFR aircraft advisories, vectors, and altitude changes, but it is still primarily the pilots responsibility for separation from aircraft, obstacles, and terrain.
ARTCCs are also responsible for setting up the initial sequence of aircraft into
the airport of intended landing. A center controller will begin descending aircraft and lining them up hundreds of miles away so when they transfer control of the aircraft to the TRACON controller, the aircraft will be in an arrival sequence for the airport of intended landing.
TRACON | Aerodrome Controller
TRACON, also called approach control or departure control are generally responsible for aircraft 18,000 - 10,000 feet and below and within a 100 miles of the airport. They also separate aircraft primarily by RADAR. A TRACON controller follows similar rules as an EnRoute controller; they just do it in a smaller generally more complex airspace. The TRACON will set up the arrival sequence to all airports in their jurisdiction as well as handle airport departures.
A TRACON will also handle much more VFR aircraft as VFR aircraft generally will fly below 10,000 feet. They provide advisories, vectors, and altitudes both VFR and IFR aircraft to and from their destinations. They also coordinate closely with the Towers to get an idea of how the tower departures will conflict with their arrivals. Sometimes the TRACON will put holds on the tower departures to help de-congest the airspace immediately around the airport.
At times a particular airport can become so saturated with aircraft arrivals, that it may be necessary for the TRACON to hold aircraft from entering the tower's airspace for a period of time. This can also occur when bad weather is present over a particular area. This increases the stress and controllers workload ten-fold.
Tower controllers handle all aircraft movement on the airport and up to 10-15
miles from the airport. The TRACON controller will set the initial sequence of the aircraft and once that is made, will transfer control of the aircraft to the tower controller. The tower controller makes the final determination of the arrival sequence. They may modify the TRACONs plan slightly to more expeditiously sequence other tower traffic and the TRACON arrivals.
Primarily tower controllers are responsible for separation on the runways and taxiways of an airport. Tower controllers will coordinate with other members of the tower, TRACON, and Center to allow the efficient movement of aircraft within their airspace. Generally, there are three main positions in any control tower. Local control, referred to as "Tower" by pilots, are responsible for all takeoffs/landings on the airport. Once the aircraft exits the runway the ground controller will provide instructions for the aircraft to safely taxi to parking. Ground control will also assign the runway the aircraft will taxi to and depart
from. Ground control and Local control must work together very closely to ensure taxiing aircraft and arriving and departing aircraft do not conflict with one another. The third position commonly found in towers is clearance delivery/flight data. This position issues all route and altitude information to the pilot and makes appropriate changes to the flight to adhere with local procedures. They may also coordinate with all the other air traffic control facilities for departure and arrival times of specific flights.
Air Traffic Control Tower Tour
At some facilities, tower and TRACON are combined. The TRACON will be located in the same building as the controller tower. Their functions would remain the same; they are just located in the same place. In the air traffic world, it is called an Up/Down facility. In these types of facilities, the controller will usually get qualified throughout the tower and then get qualified in the TRACON. The controller would rotate working in both portions of the entire facility after being fully qualified.
All of these facilities working together make it possible for a single aircraft to get from point A to point B safely. Without all three of these air traffic control facilities working together it would be impossible to make it happen. Each type of controller essentially does a completely different job than the next; however, they all have one thing in common. To get you where you need to go and keep you safe in the process.
How Do I Find a List of U.S. Air Traffic Control Facilities?
Check out StuckMic's air traffic control facility locator. You can find contact information for FAA, federal contract towers, and military facilities!
Air Traffic Control Facilities