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How Does Air Traffic Control Work? ATC Explained in 8 Steps

Air traffic control monitors the location of an aircraft, aiding them navigate through airspace utilizing radar and radio communications to avoid collisions and reinforce air travel rules. The diligent work of air traffic controllers do a lot to keep passengers and crew members safe.

As passengers, you may not hear or see much from air traffic controllers, but they are as important as anyone in ensuring a safe trip. These experts must be familiar with aircraft maintenance management solutions and systems, in order to ensure the safe departure and secure arrival of all flights.

“How does air traffic control work?” is the question every airplane enthusiast asked. Before we really delve into the mechanics, it’s important to understand the full scope of responsibility assigned to air traffic controllers. There are five duties associated with air traffic controllers:

  • to aid in coordinating movements of the aircraft in the sky
  • to ensure safe distance between aircraft is maintained
  • to direct takeoff and landings at airports
  • to provide direction around or through turbulent weather
  • to ensure minimal delay.

Here are eight different ways on how air traffic control works:

1. Knowing the Grid

North America is divided into zones and each of these zones is then divided into sectors. Each zone is comprised up of TRACONs, also known as Terminal Radar Approach Control airspaces measuring roughly 50 miles each. Each TRACON has several airports, with each airport assigned roughly 5 miles radius of control.

2. Knowing the Air Control Players

With each grid, you have multiple air traffic control stakeholders assisting aircraft. The Air Traffic Control System Command Center oversees all air traffic control. Then, there are air route traffic control centers managing each sector, along with terminal radar approach controllers handling approaching and departing aircraft.

There is also an air traffic control tower locating regularly scheduled flights, and a flight service station that provides information to pilots a la weather, route, and terrain. These jobs all fall under the umbrella of air traffic control.

3. A Plane May Be Passed Between Multiple Stakeholders

As aircraft travels through airspace and is monitored by one or more air traffic controllers, it is passed off to the next controller as the plane traverses into a new region. How this is arranged is through a flight plan.

Any commercial flight must file a flight plan to be serviced by mainstream air traffic control systems. It is this registered flight plan that is used to pass off responsibilities between controllers, generated by a computer in the form of a ‘flight progress strip’.

4. Cleared for Departures

After the flight plan is approved, there is a ground controller that determines when it’s safe to direct the pilot to push the plane back from the gate. Before any departure, a ground controller must give their approval to the local controller in the tower who watches from the skies. A local controller will give final approval and clearance for takeoff.

The pilot is in communication throughout these early stages. Then, the local controller hands things off to the departure controller at their nearest TRACON facility.

5. Next Steps

A departure controller monitors a flight during ascent before passing it off to a center controller. There are also radar associate controllers who receive and process flight plans prior to a plane entering a sector. A radar controller is also in the mix, handling all air-to-ground communication and coordinating plane activities with other sectors and/or centers as needed.

These controllers monitor the airspace at high and low altitudes, constantly updating the pilot on conditions and providing directions on how to navigate with speed, altitude, and more. The communication between air traffic control and the pilot is near constant, maximizing safety and efficiency at all times.

6. As the Plane Approaches Landing…

As a plane descends, air traffic control is handed off to an approach controller who directs the pilot to adjustments in heading, speed, and altitude. Once a plane is approximately 10 miles in proximity from the runway, a final pass-off is done to the airport tower who overtakes responsibilities from there. The local controller at the receiving airport also comes into play. Determining it to be safe, it is this local controller that then gives the pilot clearance to land.

7. More Airports, Less Air Traffic Controllers

Since the 1970s, the growth of new airports and runways has outpaced what air traffic control systems can handle. In the US alone, more than 50,000 flights every day have to be monitored. This number’s only going to increase in the years to come.

More and more, we are seeing processes go through automation via software, computations, and human-oversight communication systems. Air traffic control is continually having to adapt and be re-designed in order to accommodate more air traffic.

8. Air Traffic Controllers Internationally

When we travel to countries internationally off-continent, we may see air traffic controllers ultimately assume other responsibilities relating to security and defence. In some countries, controllers are positions filled by members of the military.

There are different rules country-by-country on what a pilot is required to obey, what is an advisory and what is an instruction, and whose ultimate responsibility it is to manage the safe operation of the aircraft. In emergency situations, deviating from air traffic control instructions is often at the discretion of the pilot in command.