What is an Air Traffic Controller - ATC - Aviation Information

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What is an Air Traffic Controller

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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.

Air Traffic Controllers can be employed by various agencies. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees the most controllers, staffing the nations busiest facilities. The Department of Defense, military, and other private contractors are responsible for staffing all of the other facilities. Though the FAA doesn't employ every controller, they oversee and provide the guidelines to which all air traffic controllers in the United States must adhere by.

As many new air traffic controllers enter the workforce, more and more are coming from professions outside the aviation industry. This article will explain the various types of air traffic control facilities and their purpose in the aviation world. The most common facilities a new hire with the Federal Aviation Administration can be assigned are: Center/EnRoute, Tower only, 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 its descent to its destination.


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 you are assigned, you may be responsible for an oceanic sector which means you will actually have control of the aircraft over the oceans bordering the United States. The 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 and obstacles.

ARTCCs are also responsible for setting up the initial sequence of aircraft into an airport. They will begin descending aircraft and lining them up hundreds of miles away so when they transfer control to the TRACON controller, they will be somewhat set up for the airport they are landing.
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