Air Traffic Control

The Eyes of the Skies: Inside Air Traffic Control

Thousands upon thousandsof people fly/travel everyday, but often pay no attention to how this feat is possible.  Passengers are usually oblivious to the inner workings of air travel; however, some pilots are even unaware of the detailed steps and individuals that it takes to get from point A to point B.  With so many different flights and flight plans taking place in the skies at any given time, it is remarkable that clear routes are even available.  The reason: there are several eyes monitoring every ounce of airspace and managing a multitude of flights at all times.  This imperative task belongs to Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Dale Willer, an air traffic controller at the Kansas City Center, explains: “Air Traffic Control is not necessarily difficult, but it does require paying attention to details, complying with established procedures and being able to do multiple tasks at one time.”

The entire country is divided into sectors, each controlled by one or more air traffic controllers.  Ground Control is the first set of controllers to whom a pilot will speak; they are responsible for taxiing aircraft movement to and from the runway.  Just before takeoff the pilot is transferred to Local Control, or “Tower” to pilots.  The Tower ensures a clear  runway for the take-off and landing procedures of all aircraft within a 5 mile radius of the airport.  Local Control also maintains separation patterns/times between aircraft, ordering “go-around’s” when need-be.  There is a highly disciplined communication process between Ground Control and Local Control to ensure ground safety, involving a meticulous request and approval system for every move.

Once the aircraft is airborne and out of range with the tower, it is transferred to Approach/Departure Control, who monitors aircraft from five miles out to around 30 – 50 miles from the airport.  Approach Control’s primary role is to provide separation of aircraft in and out of the airport area and sequence all approaching and departing flights.  Approach Controls are usually associated with the control tower of major airports, monitoring a significant area of air traffic.  Denver’s Approach Control is located near the Denver International Airport, but is responsible for 42 miles of traffic, including aircraft near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado.

Air Route Traffic Control Centers ( ARTCC’s) are the biggest piece to the ATC puzzle.  ARTCC’s, also known as “Centers,” are responsible for most air traffic between airports and all air traffic above 18,000 feet.  They pay special attention to crossing-traffic, severe weather conditions and traffic density.  Once out of range of approach control, an aircraft is handed off to each Center it travels through.  ARTCC’s supervise the largest areas of airspace, dividing the country into 21 sections.  The Denver Center, located in Longmont, includes Colorado and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas.  In general, where there is more traffic, the ARTCC’s cover less area than where there is less traffic; for example, Centers in the Northeast cover less area, but are more congested (New York Center and Indianapolis Center, for instance).

To put this in perspective, imagine a flight from Rocky Mountain Metropolitan, in Broomfield, to St. Louis, Missouri.  During this hypothetical flight, a pilot would have to speak to 8 or more different people in the following sequence: Ground Control, Tower, Denver Approach, Denver Center, Kansas City Center, St. Louis Approach control, Tower, and finally, St. Louis Ground Control, where the aircraft reaches its destination.  Without the many eyes of ATC, this route would be nearly impossible to maneuver safely, especially at night or in adverse weather conditions.  ATC plays a vital and, at times, unrecognized role in everyday air travel procedures and safety.