Air traffic control

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The air traffic control tower of Mumbai International Airport in India New-MIAL-ATC-Tower.jpg
The air traffic control tower of Mumbai International Airport in India

Air traffic control (ATC) is a service provided by ground-based air traffic controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and through a given section of controlled airspace, and can provide advisory services to aircraft in non-controlled airspace. The primary purpose of ATC worldwide is to prevent collisions, organize and expedite the flow of air traffic, and provide information and other support for pilots. [1]


Air traffic controllers monitor the location of aircraft in their assigned airspace by radar and communicate with the pilots by radio. [2] To prevent collisions, ATC enforces traffic separation rules, which ensure each aircraft maintains a minimum amount of empty space around it at all times. It is also common for ATC to provide services to all private, military, and commercial aircraft operating within its airspace, not just civilian aircraft.[ citation needed ] Depending on the type of flight and the class of airspace, ATC may issue instructions that pilots are required to obey, or advisories (known as flight information in some countries) that pilots may, at their discretion, disregard. The pilot in command is the final authority for the safe operation of the aircraft and may, in an emergency, deviate from ATC instructions to the extent required to maintain safe operation of their aircraft. [3]


Pursuant to requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), ATC operations are conducted either in the English language or the language used by the station on the ground. [4] In practice, the native language for a region is used; however, English must be used upon request. [4]


In 1920, Croydon Airport, London, was the first airport in the world to introduce air traffic control. [5] The "aerodrome control tower" was a wooden hut 15 ft (4.6 m) high with windows on all four sides. It was commissioned on February 25, 1920 and provided basic traffic, weather and location information to pilots. [6] [7]

In the United States, air traffic control developed three divisions. The first of several air mail radio stations (AMRS) was created in 1922 after World War I when the U.S. Post Office began using techniques developed by the Army to direct and track the movements of reconnaissance aircraft. Over time, the AMRS morphed into flight service stations. Today's flight service stations do not issue control instructions, but provide pilots with many other flight related informational services. They do relay control instructions from ATC in areas where flight service is the only facility with radio or phone coverage. The first airport traffic control tower, regulating arrivals, departures and surface movement of aircraft at a specific airport, opened in Cleveland in 1930. Approach/departure control facilities were created after adoption of radar in the 1950s to monitor and control the busy airspace around larger airports. The first air route traffic control center (ARTCC), which directs the movement of aircraft between departure and destination, was opened in Newark in 1935, followed in 1936 by Chicago and Cleveland. [8] Currently in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operates 22 ARTCCs.

After the 1956 Grand Canyon mid-air collision, killing all 128 on board, the FAA was given the air-traffic responsibility over the United States in 1958, and this was followed by other countries. In 1960, Britain, France, Germany and the Benelux countries set up Eurocontrol, intending to merge their airspaces. The first and only attempt to pool controllers between countries is the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC), founded in 1972 by Eurocontrol and covering Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and north-western Germany. In 2001, the EU aimed to create a "Single European Sky", hoping to boost efficiency and gain economies of scale. [9]

Airport traffic control tower

Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport's control tower AeroportoGuarulhos Torre2.jpg
São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport's control tower
Control tower at Birmingham Airport, England Control tower at Birmingham Airport, England 27June2019 arp.jpg
Control tower at Birmingham Airport, England
Small control tower at Rayskala Airfield in Loppi, Finland Lennonjohtotorni.JPG
Small control tower at Räyskälä Airfield in Loppi, Finland

The primary method of controlling the immediate airport environment is visual observation from the airport control tower. The tower is a tall, windowed structure located on the airport grounds. Air traffic controllers are responsible for the separation and efficient movement of aircraft and vehicles operating on the taxiways and runways of the airport itself, and aircraft in the air near the airport, generally 5 to 10 nautical miles (9 to 18 km) depending on the airport procedures. A controller must carry out the job using the precise and effective application of rules and procedures; however, they need flexible adjustments according to differing circumstances, often under time pressure. [10] In a study that compared stress in the general population and this kind of system markedly showed more stress level for controllers. This variation can be explained, at least in part, by the characteristics of the job. [11]

Surveillance displays are also available to controllers at larger airports to assist with controlling air traffic. Controllers may use a radar system called secondary surveillance radar for airborne traffic approaching and departing. These displays include a map of the area, the position of various aircraft, and data tags that include aircraft identification, speed, altitude, and other information described in local procedures. In adverse weather conditions, the tower controllers may also use surface movement radar (SMR), surface movement guidance and control system (SMGCS), or advanced surface movement guidance and control system (ASMGCS) to control traffic on the maneuvering area (taxiways and runway).

The areas of responsibility for tower controllers fall into three general operational disciplines: local control or air control, ground control, and flight data/clearance delivery—other categories, such as airport apron control or ground movement planner, may exist at extremely busy airports. While each tower may have unique airport-specific procedures, such as multiple teams of controllers (crews) at major or complex airports with multiple runways, the following provides a general concept of the delegation of responsibilities within the tower environment.

Remote and virtual tower (RVT) is a system based on air traffic controllers being located somewhere other than at the local airport tower and still able to provide air traffic control services. [12] [13] [14] Displays for the air traffic controllers may be live video, synthetic images based on surveillance sensor data, or both.

Ground control

Inside Pope Field air traffic control tower Pope Field Air Traffic Control Tower (9206250542).jpg
Inside Pope Field air traffic control tower

Ground control (sometimes known as ground movement control, GMC) is responsible for the airport movement areas, [15] as well as areas not released to the airlines or other users. This generally includes all taxiways, inactive runways, holding areas, and some transitional aprons or intersections where aircraft arrive, having vacated the runway or departure gate. Exact areas and control responsibilities are clearly defined in local documents and agreements at each airport. Any aircraft, vehicle, or person walking or working in these areas is required to have clearance from ground control. This is normally done via VHF/UHF radio, but there may be special cases where other procedures are used. Aircraft or vehicles without radios must respond to ATC instructions via aviation light signals or else be led by vehicles with radios. People working on the airport surface normally have a communications link through which they can communicate with ground control, commonly either by handheld radio or even cell phone. Ground control is vital to the smooth operation of the airport because this position impacts the sequencing of departure aircraft, affecting the safety and efficiency of the airport's operation.

Some busier airports have surface movement radar (SMR), [15] such as ASDE-3, AMASS, or ASDE-X, designed to display aircraft and vehicles on the ground. These are used by ground control as an additional tool to control ground traffic, particularly at night or in poor visibility. There is a wide range of capabilities on these systems as they are being modernized. Older systems will display a map of the airport and the target. Newer systems include the capability to display higher-quality mapping, radar targets, data blocks, and safety alerts, and to interface with other systems such as digital flight strips.

Air control or local control

Air control (known to pilots as tower or tower control) is responsible for the active runway surfaces. [15] Air control clears aircraft for takeoff or landing, ensuring that prescribed runway separation will exist at all times. If the air controller detects any unsafe conditions, a landing aircraft may be instructed to "go-around" and be re-sequenced into the landing pattern. This re-sequencing will depend on the type of flight and may be handled by the air controller, approach, or terminal area controller.

Within the tower, a highly disciplined communications process between the air control and ground control is an absolute necessity. Air control must ensure that ground control is aware of any operations that will impact the taxiways, and work with the approach radar controllers to create gaps in the arrival traffic to allow taxiing traffic to cross runways and to allow departing aircraft to take off. Ground control needs to keep the air controllers aware of the traffic flow towards their runways to maximise runway utilisation through effective approach spacing. Crew resource management (CRM) procedures are often used to ensure this communication process is efficient and clear. Within ATC, it is usually known as TRM (team resource management) and the level of focus on TRM varies within different ATC organisations.

Flight data and clearance delivery

Clearance delivery is the position that issues route clearances to aircraft, typically before they commence taxiing. These clearances contain details of the route that the aircraft is expected to fly after departure. [15] Clearance delivery or, at busy airports, ground movement planner (GMP) or traffic management coordinator (TMC) will, if necessary, coordinate with the relevant radar center or flow control unit to obtain releases for aircraft. At busy airports, these releases are often automatic and are controlled by local agreements allowing "free-flow" departures. When weather or extremely high demand for a certain airport or airspace becomes a factor, there may be ground "stops" (or "slot delays") or re-routes may be necessary to ensure the system does not get overloaded. The primary responsibility of clearance delivery is to ensure that the aircraft has the correct aerodrome information, such as weather and airport conditions, the correct route after departure, and time restrictions relating to that flight. This information is also coordinated with the relevant radar center or flow control unit and ground control to ensure that the aircraft reaches the runway in time to meet the time restriction provided by the relevant unit. At some airports, clearance delivery also plans aircraft push-backs and engine starts, in which case it is known as the ground movement planner (GMP): this position is particularly important at heavily congested airports to prevent taxiway and apron gridlock.

Flight data (which is routinely combined with clearance delivery) is the position that is responsible for ensuring that both controllers and pilots have the most current information: pertinent weather changes, outages, airport ground delays/ground stops, runway closures, etc. Flight data may inform the pilots using a recorded continuous loop on a specific frequency known as the automatic terminal information service (ATIS).

Approach and terminal control

Potomac Consolidated TRACON in Warrenton, Virginia, United States Potomac Consolidated TRACON.jpg
Potomac Consolidated TRACON in Warrenton, Virginia, United States

Many airports have a radar control facility that is associated with the airport. In most countries, this is referred to as terminal control and abbreviated to TMC; in the U.S., it is referred to as a TRACON (terminal radar approach control). While every airport varies, terminal controllers usually handle traffic in a 30-to-50-nautical-mile (56 to 93 km) radius from the airport. Where there are many busy airports close together, one consolidated terminal control center may service all the airports. The airspace boundaries and altitudes assigned to a terminal control center, which vary widely from airport to airport, are based on factors such as traffic flows, neighboring airports and terrain. A large and complex example was the London Terminal Control Centre, which controlled traffic for five main London airports up to 20,000 feet (6,100 m) and out to 100 nautical miles (190 km).

Terminal controllers are responsible for providing all ATC services within their airspace. Traffic flow is broadly divided into departures, arrivals, and overflights. As aircraft move in and out of the terminal airspace, they are handed off to the next appropriate control facility (a control tower, an en-route control facility, or a bordering terminal or approach control). Terminal control is responsible for ensuring that aircraft are at an appropriate altitude when they are handed off, and that aircraft arrive at a suitable rate for landing.

Not all airports have a radar approach or terminal control available. In this case, the en-route center or a neighboring terminal or approach control may co-ordinate directly with the tower on the airport and vector inbound aircraft to a position from where they can land visually. At some of these airports, the tower may provide a non-radar procedural approach service to arriving aircraft handed over from a radar unit before they are visual to land. Some units also have a dedicated approach unit which can provide the procedural approach service either all the time or for any periods of radar outage for any reason.

In the U.S., TRACONs are additionally designated by a three-digit alphanumeric code. For example, the Chicago TRACON is designated C90. [16]

Area control center/en-route center

The training department at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Leesburg, Virginia, United States AirTraffic-8.jpg
The training department at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Leesburg, Virginia, United States

ATC provides services to aircraft in flight between airports as well. Pilots fly under one of two sets of rules for separation: visual flight rules (VFR) or instrument flight rules (IFR). Air traffic controllers have different responsibilities to aircraft operating under the different sets of rules. While IFR flights are under positive control, in the US and Canada VFR pilots can request "flight following" (radar advisories), which provides traffic advisory services on a time permitting basis and may also provide assistance in avoiding areas of weather and flight restrictions, as well as allowing pilots into the ATC system prior to the need to a clearance into certain airspace. Across Europe, pilots may request for a "Flight Information Service", which is similar to flight following. In the UK it is known as a "basic service".

En-route air traffic controllers issue clearances and instructions for airborne aircraft, and pilots are required to comply with these instructions. En-route controllers also provide air traffic control services to many smaller airports around the country, including clearance off of the ground and clearance for approach to an airport. Controllers adhere to a set of separation standards that define the minimum distance allowed between aircraft. These distances vary depending on the equipment and procedures used in providing ATC services.

General characteristics

En-route air traffic controllers work in facilities called air traffic control centers, each of which is commonly referred to as a "center". The United States uses the equivalent term air route traffic control center. Each center is responsible for a given flight information region (FIR). Each flight information region covers many thousands of square miles of airspace and the airports within that airspace. Centers control IFR aircraft from the time they depart from an airport or terminal area's airspace to the time they arrive at another airport or terminal area's airspace. Centers may also "pick up" VFR aircraft that are already airborne and integrate them into the system. These aircraft must continue under VFR flight rules until the center provides a clearance.

Center controllers are responsible for issuing instructions to pilots to climb their aircraft to their assigned altitude while, at the same time, ensuring that the aircraft is properly separated from all other aircraft in the immediate area. Additionally, the aircraft must be placed in a flow consistent with the aircraft's route of flight. This effort is complicated by crossing traffic, severe weather, special missions that require large airspace allocations, and traffic density. When the aircraft approaches its destination, the center is responsible for issuing instructions to pilots so that they will meet altitude restrictions by specific points, as well as providing many destination airports with a traffic flow, which prohibits all of the arrivals being "bunched together". These "flow restrictions" often begin in the middle of the route, as controllers will position aircraft landing in the same destination so that when the aircraft are close to their destination they are sequenced.

As an aircraft reaches the boundary of a center's control area it is "handed off" or "handed over" to the next area control center. In some cases this "hand-off" process involves a transfer of identification and details between controllers so that air traffic control services can be provided in a seamless manner; in other cases local agreements may allow "silent handovers" such that the receiving center does not require any co-ordination if traffic is presented in an agreed manner. After the hand-off, the aircraft is given a frequency change and begins talking to the next controller. This process continues until the aircraft is handed off to a terminal controller ("approach").

Radar coverage

Since centers control a large airspace area, they will typically use long range radar that has the capability, at higher altitudes, to see aircraft within 200 nautical miles (370 km) of the radar antenna. They may also use radar data to control when it provides a better "picture" of the traffic or when it can fill in a portion of the area not covered by the long range radar.

In the U.S. system, at higher altitudes, over 90% of the U.S. airspace is covered by radar and often by multiple radar systems; however, coverage may be inconsistent at lower altitudes used by aircraft due to high terrain or distance from radar facilities. A center may require numerous radar systems to cover the airspace assigned to them, and may also rely on pilot position reports from aircraft flying below the floor of radar coverage. This results in a large amount of data being available to the controller. To address this, automation systems have been designed that consolidate the radar data for the controller. This consolidation includes eliminating duplicate radar returns, ensuring the best radar for each geographical area is providing the data, and displaying the data in an effective format.

Unmanned radar on a remote mountain Grandballonsud.jpg
Unmanned radar on a remote mountain

Centers also exercise control over traffic travelling over the world's ocean areas. These areas are also flight information regions (FIRs). Because there are no radar systems available for oceanic control, oceanic controllers provide ATC services using procedural control. These procedures use aircraft position reports, time, altitude, distance, and speed to ensure separation. Controllers record information on flight progress strips and in specially developed oceanic computer systems as aircraft report positions. This process requires that aircraft be separated by greater distances, which reduces the overall capacity for any given route. See for example the North Atlantic Track system.

Some air navigation service providers (e.g., Airservices Australia, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Nav Canada, etc.) have implemented automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) as part of their surveillance capability. This new technology reverses the radar concept. Instead of radar "finding" a target by interrogating the transponder, the ADS-B equipped aircraft sends a position report as determined by the navigation equipment on board the aircraft. ADS-C is another mode of automatic dependent surveillance, however ADS-C operates in the "contract" mode where the aircraft reports a position, automatically or initiated by the pilot, based on a predetermined time interval. It is also possible for controllers to request more frequent reports to more quickly establish aircraft position for specific reasons. However, since the cost for each report is charged by the ADS service providers to the company operating the aircraft,[ disputed ] more frequent reports are not commonly requested except in emergency situations. ADS-C is significant because it can be used where it is not possible to locate the infrastructure for a radar system (e.g., over water). Computerized radar displays are now being designed to accept ADS-C inputs as part of the display. [17] This technology is currently used in portions of the North Atlantic and the Pacific by a variety of states who share responsibility for the control of this airspace.

Precision approach radars (PAR) are commonly used by military controllers of air forces of several countries, to assist the pilot in final phases of landing in places where instrument landing system and other sophisticated airborne equipment are unavailable to assist the pilots in marginal or near zero visibility conditions. This procedure is also called talkdowns.

A radar archive system (RAS) keeps an electronic record of all radar information, preserving it for a few weeks. This information can be useful for search and rescue. When an aircraft has 'disappeared' from radar screens, a controller can review the last radar returns from the aircraft to determine its likely position. For example, see this crash report. [18] RAS is also useful to technicians who are maintaining radar systems.

Flight traffic mapping

The mapping of flights in real-time is based on the air traffic control system, and volunteer ADS-B receivers. In 1991, data on the location of aircraft was made available by the Federal Aviation Administration to the airline industry. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Helicopter Association International, and the National Air Transportation Association petitioned the FAA to make ASDI information available on a "need-to-know" basis. Subsequently, NBAA advocated the broad-scale dissemination of air traffic data. The Aircraft Situational Display to Industry (ASDI) system now conveys up-to-date flight information to the airline industry and the public. Some companies that distribute ASDI information are FlightExplorer, FlightView, and FlyteComm. Each company maintains a website that provides free updated information to the public on flight status. Stand-alone programs are also available for displaying the geographic location of airborne IFR (instrument flight rules) air traffic anywhere in the FAA air traffic system. Positions are reported for both commercial and general aviation traffic. The programs can overlay air traffic with a wide selection of maps such as, geo-political boundaries, air traffic control center boundaries, high altitude jet routes, satellite cloud and radar imagery.



Intersecting contrails of aircraft over London, an area of high air traffic Air traffic heathrow.JPG
Intersecting contrails of aircraft over London, an area of high air traffic

The day-to-day problems faced by the air traffic control system are primarily related to the volume of air traffic demand placed on the system, and weather. Several factors dictate the amount of traffic that can land at an airport in a given amount of time. Each landing aircraft must touch down, slow, and exit the runway before the next crosses the approach end of the runway. This process requires at least one and up to four minutes for each aircraft. Allowing for departures between arrivals, each runway can thus handle about 30 arrivals per hour. A large airport with two arrival runways can handle about 60 arrivals per hour in good weather. Problems begin when airlines schedule more arrivals into an airport than can be physically handled, or when delays elsewhere cause groups of aircraft – that would otherwise be separated in time – to arrive simultaneously. Aircraft must then be delayed in the air by holding over specified locations until they may be safely sequenced to the runway. Up until the 1990s, holding, which has significant environmental and cost implications, was a routine occurrence at many airports. Advances in computers now allow the sequencing of planes hours in advance. Thus, planes may be delayed before they even take off (by being given a "slot"), or may reduce speed in flight and proceed more slowly thus significantly reducing the amount of holding.

Air traffic control errors occur when the separation (either vertical or horizontal) between airborne aircraft falls below the minimum prescribed separation set (for the domestic United States) by the US Federal Aviation Administration. Separation minimums for terminal control areas (TCAs) around airports are lower than en-route standards. Errors generally occur during periods following times of intense activity, when controllers tend to relax and overlook the presence of traffic and conditions that lead to loss of minimum separation. [19]


Airplane taking off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with the ATC tower in the background PSX 20150807 202515.jpg
Airplane taking off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with the ATC tower in the background

Beyond runway capacity issues, the weather is a major factor in traffic capacity. Rain, ice, snow or hail on the runway cause landing aircraft to take longer to slow and exit, thus reducing the safe arrival rate and requiring more space between landing aircraft. Fog also requires a decrease in the landing rate. These, in turn, increase airborne delay for holding aircraft. If more aircraft are scheduled than can be safely and efficiently held in the air, a ground delay program may be established, delaying aircraft on the ground before departure due to conditions at the arrival airport.

In Area Control Centers, a major weather problem is thunderstorms, which present a variety of hazards to aircraft. Aircraft will deviate around storms, reducing the capacity of the en-route system by requiring more space per aircraft or causing congestion as many aircraft try to move through a single hole in a line of thunderstorms. Occasionally weather considerations cause delays to aircraft prior to their departure as routes are closed by thunderstorms.

Much money has been spent on creating software to streamline this process. However, at some ACCs, air traffic controllers still record data for each flight on strips of paper and personally coordinate their paths. In newer sites, these flight progress strips have been replaced by electronic data presented on computer screens. As new equipment is brought in, more and more sites are upgrading away from paper flight strips.


Constrained control capacity and growing traffic lead to flight cancellation and delays:

By then the market for air-traffic services was worth $14bn. More efficient ATC could save 5-10% of aviation fuel by avoiding holding patterns and indirect airways. [9]

The military takes 80% of Chinese air space, congesting the thin corridors open to airliners. Britain is closing military air space only during air-force exercises. [9]


A prerequisite to safe air traffic separation is the assignment and use of distinctive call signs. These are permanently allocated by ICAO on request usually to scheduled flights and some air forces and other military services for military flights. There are written callsigns with a 3-letter combination followed by the flight number such as AAL872 or VLG1011. As such they appear on flight plans and ATC radar labels. There are also the audio or Radiotelephony callsigns used on the radio contact between pilots and air traffic control. These are not always identical to their written counterparts. An example of an audio callsign would be "Speedbird 832", instead of the written "BAW832". This is used to reduce the chance of confusion between ATC and the aircraft. By default, the callsign for any other flight is the registration number (tail number) of the aircraft, such as "N12345", "C-GABC" or "EC-IZD". The short Radiotelephony callsigns for these tail numbers is the last 3 letters using the NATO phonetic alphabet (e.g. ABC spoken alpha-bravo-charlie for C-GABC) or the last 3 numbers (e.g. three-four-five for N12345). In the United States, the prefix may be an aircraft type, model or manufacturer in place of the first registration character, for example, "N11842" could become "Cessna 842". [21] This abbreviation is only allowed after communications have been established in each sector.

Before around 1980 International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ICAO were using the same 2-letter callsigns. Due to the larger number of new airlines after deregulation, ICAO established the 3-letter callsigns as mentioned above. The IATA callsigns are currently used in aerodromes on the announcement tables but are no longer used in air traffic control. For example, AA is the IATA callsign for American Airlines; the ATC equivalent is AAL. Flight numbers in regular commercial flights are designated by the aircraft operator and identical callsign might be used for the same scheduled journey each day it is operated, even if the departure time varies a little across different days of the week. The callsign of the return flight often differs only by the final digit from the outbound flight. Generally, airline flight numbers are even if eastbound, and odd if westbound. In order to reduce the possibility of two callsigns on one frequency at any time sounding too similar, a number of airlines, particularly in Europe, have started using alphanumeric callsigns that are not based on flight numbers (e.g. DLH23LG, spoken as Lufthansa-two-three-lima-golf, to prevent confusion between incoming DLH23 and outgoing DLH24 in the same frequency). Additionally, it is the right of the air traffic controller to change the 'audio' callsign for the period the flight is in his sector if there is a risk of confusion, usually choosing the tail number instead.


Many technologies are used in air traffic control systems. Primary and secondary radar are used to enhance a controller's situation awareness within his assigned airspace – all types of aircraft send back primary echoes of varying sizes to controllers' screens as radar energy is bounced off their skins, and transponder-equipped aircraft reply to secondary radar interrogations by giving an ID (Mode A), an altitude (Mode C) and/or a unique callsign (Mode S). Certain types of weather may also register on the radar screen.

These inputs, added to data from other radars, are correlated to build the air situation. Some basic processing occurs on the radar tracks, such as calculating ground speed and magnetic headings.

Usually, a flight data processing system manages all the flight plan related data, incorporating – in a low or high degree – the information of the track once the correlation between them (flight plan and track) is established. All this information is distributed to modern operational display systems, making it available to controllers.

The FAA has spent over US$3 billion on software, but a fully automated system is still yet to be achieved. In 2002 the UK brought a new area control centre into service at the London Area Control Centre, Swanwick, Hampshire, relieving a busy suburban centre at West Drayton, Middlesex, north of London Heathrow Airport. Software from Lockheed-Martin predominates at the London Area Control Centre. However, the centre was initially troubled by software and communications problems causing delays and occasional shutdowns. [22]

Some tools are available in different domains to help the controller further:

URET and MTCD provide conflict advisories up to 30 minutes in advance and have a suite of assistance tools that assist in evaluating resolution options and pilot requests.
Electronic flight progress strip system at Sao Paulo Intl. control tower - ground control TATIC Electronic Flight Strip system at Sao Paulo Itnl.jpg
Electronic flight progress strip system at São Paulo Intl. control tower – ground control

A system of electronic flight strips replacing the old paper strips is being used by several service providers, such as Nav Canada, MASUAC, DFS, DECEA. E-strips allows controllers to manage electronic flight data online without paper strips, reducing the need for manual functions, creating new tools and reducing the ATCO's workload. The firsts electronic flight strips systems were independently and simultaneously invented and implemented by Nav Canada and Saipher ATC in 1999. The Nav Canada system known as EXCDS [26] and rebranded in 2011 to NAVCANstrips and Saipher's first generation system known as SGTC, which is now being updated by its 2nd generation system, the TATIC TWR. DECEA in Brazil is the world's largest user of tower e-strips system, ranging from very small airports up to the busiest ones, taking the advantage of real time information and data collection from each of more than 150 sites for use in air traffic flow management (ATFM), billing and statistics.

Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and air traffic service providers (ATSPs)

Proposed changes

In the United States, some alterations to traffic control procedures are being examined:

In Europe, the SESAR [25] (Single European Sky ATM Research) programme plans to develop new methods, technologies, procedures, and systems to accommodate future (2020 and beyond) air traffic needs. In October 2018, European controller unions dismissed setting targets to improve ATC as "a waste of time and effort" as new technology could cut costs for users but threaten their jobs. In April 2019, the EU called for a "Digital European Sky", focusing on cutting costs by including a common digitisation standard and allowing controllers to move to where they are needed instead of merging national ATCs, as it would not solve all problems. Single air-traffic control services in continent-sized America and China does not alleviate congestion. Eurocontrol tries to reduce delays by diverting flights to less busy routes: flight paths across Europe were redesigned to accommodate the new airport in Istanbul, which opened in April, but the extra capacity will be absorbed by rising demand for air travel. [9]

Well-paid jobs in Western Europe could move east with cheaper labour. The average Spanish controller earn over €200,000 a year, over seven times the country average salary, more than pilots, and at least ten controllers were paid over €810,000 ($1.1m) a year in 2010. French controllers spent a cumulative nine months on strike between 2004 and 2016. [9]


Many countries have also privatized or corporatized their air navigation service providers. [34] There are several models that can be used for ATC service providers. The first is to have the ATC services be part of a government agency as is currently the case in the United States. The problem with this model is that funding can be inconsistent and can disrupt the development and operation of services. Sometimes funding can disappear when lawmakers cannot approve budgets in time. Both proponents and opponents of privatization recognize that stable funding is one of the major factors for successful upgrades of ATC infrastructure. Some of the funding issues include sequestration and politicization of projects. [35] Proponents argue that moving ATC services to a private corporation could stabilize funding over the long term which will result in more predictable planning and rollout of new technology as well as training of personnel.

Another model is to have ATC services provided by a government corporation. This model is used in Germany, where funding is obtained through user fees. Yet another model is to have a for-profit corporation operate ATC services. This is the model used in the United Kingdom, but there have been several issues with the system there including a large-scale failure in December 2014 which caused delays and cancellations and has been attributed to cost-cutting measures put in place by this corporation. In fact, earlier that year, the corporation owned by the German government won the bid to provide ATC services for Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom. The last model, which is often the suggested model for the United States to transition to is to have a non-profit organization that would handle ATC services as is used in Canada. [36]

The Canadian system is the one most often used as a model by proponents of privatization. Air traffic control privatization has been successful in Canada with the creation of Nav Canada, a private nonprofit organization which has reduced costs and has allowed new technologies to be deployed faster due to the elimination of much of the bureaucratic red tape. This has resulted in shorter flights and less fuel usage. It has also resulted in flights being safer due to new technology. Nav Canada is funded from fees that are collected from the airlines based on the weight of the aircraft and the distance flown. [37]

ATC is operated by national governments with few exceptions: in the European Union, only Italy has private shareholders. Privatisation does not guarantee lower prices: the profit margin of MUAC was 70% in 2017, as there is no competition, but governments could offer fixed terms concessions. Australia, Fiji and New Zealand run the upper-air space for the Pacific islands' governments. HungaroControl offers remote airport tower services from Budapest, and since 2014 provides upper air space management for Kosovo.

ATC regulations in the United States

The United States airspace is divided into 21 zones (centers), and each zone is divided into sectors. Also within each zone are portions of airspace, about 50 miles (80.5 km) in diameter, called TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) airspaces. Within each TRACON airspace are a number of airports, each of which has its own airspace with a 5-mile (8-km) radius. FAA control tower operators (CTO) / air traffic controllers use FAA Order 7110.65 as the authority for all procedures regarding air traffic. [38]

See also

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In aviation, instrument flight rules (IFR) is one of two sets of regulations governing all aspects of civil aviation aircraft operations; the other is visual flight rules (VFR).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Air traffic controller</span> Aviation specialist

Air traffic control specialists, abbreviated ATCs, are personnel responsible for the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic in the global air traffic control system. Usually stationed in air traffic control centers and control towers on the ground, they monitor the position, speed, and altitude of aircraft in their assigned airspace visually and by radar, and give directions to the pilots by radio. The position of air traffic controller is one that requires highly specialized knowledge, skills, and abilities. Controllers apply separation rules to keep aircraft at a safe distance from each other and within proper airspace in their area of responsibility and move all aircraft safely and efficiently through their assigned sector of airspace, as well as on the ground. Because controllers have an incredibly large responsibility while on duty and make countless real-time decisions on a daily basis, the ATC profession is consistently regarded around the world as one of the most mentally challenging careers, and can be notoriously stressful depending on many variables. Many controllers, however, cite high salaries, and a large, unique, and privileged degree of autonomy as major advantages of their jobs.

Aviation is the design, development, production, operation, and use of aircraft, especially heavier-than-air aircraft. Articles related to aviation include:

Airspace is the portion of the atmosphere controlled by a country above its territory, including its territorial waters or, more generally, any specific three-dimensional portion of the atmosphere. It is not the same as outer space which is the expanse or space outside the Earth and aerospace which is the general term for Earth's atmosphere and the outer space within the planet's vicinity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irish Aviation Authority</span> Commercial semi-state company in Ireland

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) is a commercial semi-state company in Ireland responsible for the regulation of safety aspects of air travel. Its head office is in The Times Building in Dublin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shanwick Oceanic Control</span> Area of International Airspace which lies above the northeast part of the North Atlantic

Shanwick is the air traffic control (ATC) name given to the area of international airspace which lies above the northeast part of the Atlantic Ocean.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Instrument approach</span> Aircraft landing procedure

In aviation, an instrument approach or instrument approach procedure (IAP) is a series of predetermined maneuvers for the orderly transfer of an aircraft operating under instrument flight rules from the beginning of the initial approach to a landing, or to a point from which a landing may be made visually. These approaches are approved in the European Union by EASA and the respective country authorities and in the United States by the FAA or the United States Department of Defense for the military. The ICAO defines an instrument approach as "a series of predetermined maneuvers by reference to flight instruments with specific protection from obstacles from the initial approach fix, or where applicable, from the beginning of a defined arrival route to a point from which a landing can be completed and thereafter, if landing is not completed, to a position at which holding or en route obstacle clearance criteria apply."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Area control center</span> Air traffic control facility

In air traffic control, an area control center (ACC), also known as a center or en-route center, is a facility responsible for controlling aircraft flying in the airspace of a given flight information region (FIR) at high altitudes between airport approaches and departures. In the US, such a center is referred to as an air route traffic control center (ARTCC).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Airports Authority of India</span> Statutory body under Ministry of civil aviation, Govt. of India

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) is a statutory body under the ownership of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India. It is responsible for creating, upgrading, maintaining, and managing civil aviation infrastructure in India. It provides Communication Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) services over the Indian airspace and adjoining oceanic areas. AAI currently manages a total of 137 airports, including 34 international airports, 10 Customs Airports, 81 domestic airports, and 23 Civil enclaves at Defence airfields. AAI also has ground installations at all airports and 25 other locations to ensure the safety of aircraft operations. AAI covers all major air routes over the Indian landmass via 29 Radar installations at 11 locations along with 700 VOR/DVOR installations co-located with Distance Measuring Equipment (DME). 52 runways are provided with Instrument landing system (ILS) installations with Night Landing Facilities at most of these airports and an Automatic Message Switching System at 15 Airports.

Air traffic control in Australia is provided by two independent organisations, one civilian and one military. The civilian provider is Airservices Australia, which controls civilian airfields and airspace. The military provider is the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which controls military airfields and adjoining airspace. This includes Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy aviation bases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Airport surveillance radar</span> Radar system

An airport surveillance radar (ASR) is a radar system used at airports to detect and display the presence and position of aircraft in the terminal area, the airspace around airports. It is the main air traffic control system for the airspace around airports. At large airports it typically controls traffic within a radius of 60 miles (96 km) of the airport below an elevation of 25,000 feet. The sophisticated systems at large airports consist of two different radar systems, the primary and secondary surveillance radar. The primary radar typically consists of a large rotating parabolic antenna dish that sweeps a vertical fan-shaped beam of microwaves around the airspace surrounding the airport. It detects the position and range of aircraft by microwaves reflected back to the antenna from the aircraft's surface. The secondary surveillance radar consists of a second rotating antenna, often mounted on the primary antenna, which interrogates the transponders of aircraft, which transmits a radio signal back containing the aircraft's identification, barometric altitude, and an emergency status code, which is displayed on the radar screen next to the return from the primary radar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Non-towered airport</span> Airport without an air traffic control tower

In aviation, a non-towered airport is an airport without a control tower, or air traffic control (ATC) unit. The vast majority of the world's airports are non-towered. In the United States, there are close to 20,000 non-towered airports compared to approximately 500 airports with control towers. Airports with a control tower without 24/7 ATC service follow non-towered airport procedures when the tower is closed but the airport remains open, for example at night.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is an ongoing United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) project to modernize the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA began work on NextGen improvements in 2007 and plans to finish the final implementation segment by 2030. The goals of the modernization include using new technologies and procedures to increase the safety, efficiency, capacity, access, flexibility, predictability, and resilience of the NAS while reducing the environmental impact of aviation.

ATC Zero is an official term used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that means the FAA is unable to safely provide the published ATC services within the airspace managed by a specific facility. The term is always used in conjunction with a facility reference. FAA ATC facilities include Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC); Terminal Radar Control facility (TRACON), Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT), Flight Service Stations (FSS), or the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC). The term is defined in FAA Order JO 1900.47, Air Traffic Control Operational Contingency Plans. It is one of three designations used by the FAA to describe degraded operations and invoke operational contingency plans.

The National Airspace System (NAS) is the airspace, navigation facilities and airports of the United States along with their associated information, services, rules, regulations, policies, procedures, personnel and equipment. It includes components shared jointly with the military. It is one of the most complex aviation systems in the world, and services air travel in the United States and over large portions of the world's oceans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Air Traffic Organization</span>

The Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is an air navigation service provider in the United States of America. The ATO is the operational division of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast</span> Aircraft surveillance technology

Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) is an aviation surveillance technology and form of Electronic Conspicuity in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation or other sensors and periodically broadcasts its position and other related data, enabling it to be tracked. The information can be received by air traffic control ground-based or satellite-based receivers as a replacement for secondary surveillance radar (SSR). Unlike SSR, ADS-B does not require an interrogation signal from the ground or from other aircraft to activate its transmissions. ADS-B can also receive point-to-point by other nearby equipped "ADS-B In" equipped aircraft to provide traffic situational awareness and support self-separation. ADS-B is "automatic" in that it requires no pilot or external input to trigger its transmissions. It is "dependent" in that it depends on data from the aircraft's navigation system to provide the transmitted data.

Karachi Area Control Centre is one of two Area Control Centers in Pakistan operated by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority and is based in Terminal 1 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. Karachi ACC air traffic controllers provide en route and terminal control services to aircraft in the Karachi Flight Information Region. The Karachi FIR airspace covers Pakistani airspace between the 30° North to 23° North. To the north is the Lahore FIR. To the east is the Delhi FIR. To the south is the Muscat FIR and to the west are the Tehran FIR and Kabul FIRs.

Lahore Area Control Centre is one of three Area Control Centers in Pakistan operated by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority and based at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore. Lahore ACC air traffic controllers provide en route and terminal control services to aircraft in the Lahore Flight Information Region (FIR). The Lahore FIR airspace covers Pakistani airspace between the 30° North to 37° North. To the south is the Karachi FIR. To the north is the Urumqi FIR. To the east is the Delhi FIR. To the west is the Kabul FIR.

The Cape TRACON (K90) is a radar approach facility located at Joint Base Cape Cod, Massachusetts next to the airfield for Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. It is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).


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