In today’s Academic Minute, Professor Sid McGuirk of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University explains how the air traffic control system is able to track and maintain the safety of thousands of daily flights.
Sid McGuirk is an associate professor and coordinator of the Air Traffic Management Program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has held a number of positions with the Federal Aviation Administration, including air traffic controller. After obtaining a law degree, he also served as an advisor to the FAA on labor matters and lawsuits resulting from aircraft accidents.
Prof. Sid McGuirk – Air Traffic Control
For most people, the glass cage on top of the tall, narrow building at the airport is where the air traffic controllers work. And they’re right – partly. But in fact, there are two more domains of air traffic control – radar approach control and en route control.
Controllers in airport towers and radar approach facilities move aircraft into and out of an airport. Relying on visual observation and radar, they ensure that aircraft are safely spaced apart and they clear pilots for takeoffs and landings.
Once a plane is airborne, controllers in radar approach control hand it off to enroute controllers, who are then responsible for safe separation. En route controllers use radar to maintain a safe distance between aircraft. There are 20 enroute air traffic control centers in the lower 48 states, one in Alaska, and a combined radar facility in Hawaii. Each center is assigned a block of airspace containing a defined route structure. Airplanes fly these designated routes to reach their destination. As an aircraft nears its destination, the en route controller issues a clearance for the initial descent and transition to the terminal environment, where approach controllers and tower controllers ensure a safe landing.
The Federal Aviation Administration employs around 15,000 civilian air traffic controllers to provide the safe, orderly and expeditious movement of some 5,000 aircraft over the United States at any given moment. It’s a job where no two days are ever the same. Depending on the situation, a controller can be comfortable managing as many as 15-20 flights at a time and then under different circumstances sweating bullets with only a handful of aircraft. It’s a complex system, staffed by ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. And yes, some of them work in that glass-topped tower at your local airport.