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What is Air Traffic Control?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Thousands of planes fly all over the world every day. Their movements are monitored and dictated by air traffic control, a service which most national governments fund and support. Air traffic control is designed to keep planes away from each other while ensuring that air traffic runs smoothly and efficiently. In addition, in many countries, air traffic control is the first responder in emergency situations involving aircraft.

There are numerous aspects to air traffic control. Many people are familiar with the air traffic control towers installed in airports to monitor incoming and outgoing flights. There are also regional command centers which handle air traffic in a certain region, and many nations may have a central control station as well. Military bases and facilities also have their own air traffic control, although the military controllers certainly interact with those handling civilian airspace. These facilities combine their staff and equipment to ensure that all of the aircraft in the airspace over a country are monitored while in flight.

At airports, air traffic controllers decide when planes will take off and land, and which runways they may use. Ground controllers work directly with the aircraft, coordinating their movements on the ground to ensure that they reach the right runways and terminals. Once an aircraft takes off, it is monitored by a regional control center, and as the plane travels, it may be handed off through multiple regional centers, including international air traffic control centers if necessary.

The technology involved in air traffic control is quite extensive. Planes communicate with the ground through transponders and radios, while air traffic controllers use a variety of tools to plot aircraft in flight. Air traffic controllers are extensively trained in the use of their equipment, and they must also be good at thinking on their feet and thinking spatially. They must also be able to make rapid decisions in emergency situations, and the pressures of the job can get very intense, especially during peak flight periods.

Since clear and rapid communication is vital, commercial air pilots and air traffic controllers around the world are generally expected to speak English. Regional air traffic controllers may use their native language when they communicate with fellow citizens, but they also need to be able to talk with pilots from other countries. By dictating a universal language for aircraft control, all countries can be assured that air travel is smooth and safe for all.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By stl156 — On Sep 27, 2011

What I would like to know about air traffic controllers is how extensive the interview process is and even if they make what is involved with the interview process available to the public. Anymore with the fears people have with air travel nowadays I would imagine that there is a lot of emphasis placed on the interview and background checks involved with people such as air traffic controllers and I would not at all be surprised if they keep the interview and tests take secret so the wrong type of people do not prepare extensively for the tests.

What I would like to know is how extensive the process is from start to finish it is to be an air traffic controller and in the end how much their pay is considering how important their job is.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 26, 2011

@jcraig - That is a good point to make. Since air traffic control probably involves juggling a lot of different decisions at once I have to think that the interview process is extremely extensive and that they involve many types of tests to make sure that the air traffic controller does not fold under pressure or become too flustered with having to make tough or fast decisions.

By jcraig — On Sep 26, 2011

@jmc88 - I totally agree with you. Whenever an airport has a weather problem it tends to cause delays and this can really put heat on the airport, simply due to the frustration of everyone, and create a stressful environment. Despite this problem the air traffic controller is in charge of lives and has to make sure that they do not become so stressed that their performance lacks when the going gets tough.

Because of the responsibility that sir traffic controllers have I would have to imagine that the interview process for someone applying to be an air traffic controller is very extensive and involves a lot of people being turned down for this type of job.

By jmc88 — On Sep 25, 2011

I have to imagine that being an air traffic controller is a very stressful job. In supremely good weather I have to imagine that it would not that stressful, but in really bad snowy weather I would think that it would be amazingly stressful considering the air traffic controllers are in charge of safely guiding lives to the ground and throwing in really bad weather has to add some stress to their job.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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