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What Air Traffic Controllers Do

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that planes stay safe distances apart.


Air traffic controllers typically do the following:

Air traffic controllers’ immediate concern is safety, but they also must direct planes efficiently to minimize delays. They manage the flow of airplanes in and out of the airport, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and monitor airplanes as they travel through the skies.

Controllers usually manage multiple airplanes at the same time and often must make quick decisions about completely different activities. For example, a controller might direct one plane on its landing approach while providing another plane with weather information.

The following are types of air traffic controllers:

Tower controllers direct the movement of planes on the runway. They check flight plans, give pilots clearance for takeoff or landing, and direct the movement of planes on the runways and other parts of the airport. Most work from air traffic control towers.

Radar approach/departure controllers ensure that planes traveling within an airport’s airspace keep a minimum safe distance apart. This airspace is normally a 40 mile radius around the main airport.

These controllers' primary responsibility is to manage the flow of airplanes coming in and out of the airport. They sequence the arrival and departure of airplanes, guide pilots during takeoff and landing, and use radar equipment to monitor flight paths. They also provide pilots with information on weather conditions.

These controllers work in buildings known as terminal radar approach control centers (TRACONs).

En route controllers monitor airplanes once they leave an airport’s airspace. They work at any of the 21 air route traffic control centers located throughout the country.

Each center is assigned an airspace based on the geography and altitude of the area in which it is located. As an airplane approaches a center’s airspace, en route controllers guide the airplane along its route. For example, if two airplanes enter a center’s airspace at the same time, an en route controller may arrange for one plane to change altitude to avoid the other plane.

As an airplane goes along its route, en route controllers hand the plane off to the next center along the path. About 150 miles from the airport, en route controllers begin monitoring the plane’s descent path. When the airplane is about 50 miles from the airport, en route controllers turn the plane over to the airport’s radar approach controllers.

Some air traffic controllers work at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. These controllers look for traffic patterns that could create bottlenecks in the system. When they find one, they provide instructions to prevent traffic jams. Their objective is to keep traffic levels manageable for the airport and for en route controllers.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition