How Air Traffic Control Systems Work

We’ve seen air traffic controller towers every time we pass an airport. These large towers are usually isolated from the main ground, but how much do you really know about the control systems? How do air traffic control systems work and what are they designed for? The aviation crew at our air traffic controller school take a closer look and provide an in-depth explanation about those towers in the sky and the people inside of them.

What Does an Air Traffic Control System Do?

The role of an air traffic controller is quite complex. They’re the person who works from the control tower, giving clearance for aircraft to take off and land safely in the airport. The air traffic controller works within a system, coordinating patterns to ensure aircraft keep a safe distance in the air and on the ground. The main goal of an air traffic controller is to ensure the safety of aircraft, pilots, flight attendants, and of course, the airline passengers.

An air traffic controller will communicate with pilots throughout their entire flight, relaying information back and forth between incoming and outgoing flights. They use a large system of computers, radars, and visual references during this communication. They must provide pilots with an in-depth explanation about the weather and should be prepared for any necessary flight path changes.

How Air Traffic Control Towers Workinfographic on how air traffic control towers work

There are seven phases in air traffic control: preflight, takeoff, departure, in the air, descent, approach, and landing. Preflight is when the weather forecast is communicated from the air traffic control tower to the pilot and clearance is provided for the flight’s route. Takeoff is when the tower gives the airplane clearance to lift off the ground. Departure occurs when the plane is five miles beyond the airport and flight control is transferred to a Terminal Radar. In the air describes when the oversight is given to an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), which is a radar system supervising flights within the area. Descent is when the plane is within 50 miles of its destination airport. During the approach, the TRACON controller fuses several streams of descending airplanes into one even pace. Finally, landing is when the local controller gives clearance for landing and directs pilots through taxiways.

TRACON and Air Traffic Control

According to the FAA, “TRACONs are FAA facilities that house air traffic controllers who use radar displays and radios to guide aircraft approaching and departing airports generally within a 30- to 50-mile radius up to 10,000 feet, as well as aircraft that may be flying over that airspace.” [1] When landing at the destination airport within five miles, TRACON controllers hand off the aircraft to the local air traffic controllers and vice versa during departure. However, TRACON controllers aren’t responsible for landings and takeoffs.

Why Are Traffic Controllers Important?

The role of an air traffic controller is very important. Pilots cannot fly an airplane without the safety of an air traffic control system. In the event of an emergency, an air traffic controller will notify authorities and calmly handle the situation, thinking while under pressure and multitasking throughout the event.

To be an air traffic controller there are certain skills you must possess. You must be great under pressure, have the time and concentration to sit long hours while reading graphs and visuals, and you must also be proficient in math.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be an Air Traffic Controller?

If you’re wondering how to become an air traffic controller, acquiring the proper certifications is a great start. You will need three years of schooling in the National Air Traffic Services (NATS). To begin, you must be at least 18 years of age or older. Speaking English as well as completion and passing a medical examination as well as a security clearance are also requirements.

With the proper air traffic controller qualifications, you will then be assigned to one of three specific air traffic control positions:

  • Area Controller
  • Approach Controller
  • Aerodrome Controller

It takes a certain skill level and several requirements to become an air traffic controller. Although this is a great job, it is not meant for everyone. However, there are other aviation jobs similar to air traffic controllers that may better suit you if you are interested in a career in aviation.

What are Air Traffic Control Zones? 

In air traffic control, the concept of a zone is an extremely important concept that is essential to understanding the job and responsibilities of one. If you are asking, “how does air traffic control work?”, an important consideration to have in mind is understanding what a zone is and what it entails. A “zone” in aviation is a block of controlled airspace extending from the surface of the earth to a specified upper limit. These are also referred to as control zones. The purpose of these is to establish an area to protect air traffic operating to and from an airport. This is an extremely important part of an air traffic controller’s job. 

What Does Heavy Mean in Air Traffic Control? 

One of the most popular phrases that are commonly associated with air traffic control is an airplane that is “heavy.” A heavy airplane is one that is large and requires more separation both in the air and when the time comes to land and take off. Being aware of heavy airplanes is a top consideration for many people in the air traffic control industry because it will heavily influence what the processes are like for basic air traffic control processes. When an airplane is considered “heavy,” air traffic controllers will change how they approach their jobs. 

What Does Taxiing Mean on a Flight Status? 

How does air traffic control work if a plane is on the ground? Air traffic controllers are concerned with the movements of an airplane that occur both on the ground and in the air. Our aircraft dispatch training center would like to point out that one of the most important parts of the job description is organizing the runway and making sure that certain airplanes are taking off at the right time and that they follow an order. Thus, in the context of flight status, taxiing means that the aircraft is moving along a runway on the ground. 

What Does an Air Traffic Controller Do? 

The purpose of air traffic controllers is somewhat different from that of an aircraft dispatcher. Air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air. Someone that undergoes aircraft dispatcher training is more involved in planning the route of the airplane before it takes off. This is different from an aircraft controller because these are more focused on directing traffic both in the air and the ground while the airplane is going through its route. 

More About Sheffield School of Aeronautics

How does air traffic control work? We hope that we have answered your question in the preceding article. Aside from useful resources like this one, we offer many classes for our students. Some of these include: 

An aircraft dispatcher is one of the other great professions to look into. Being an aircraft dispatcher requires patience and training. The excellent professors at Sheffield School of Aeronautics teach aircraft dispatcher courses for those interested in a career with airlines. Contact our aviation crew at the Sheffield School of Aeronautics if you have questions about the programs and certifications we offer and to discover more about what makes us a top aircraft dispatcher school.


Additional Reading

Aircraft Dispatcher Courses

Choosing the Right Career in Aviation

Can Planes Fly in Snow?



[1] Federal Aviation Administration – Fact Sheet – Co-Located TRACONS (Terminal Radar Approach Control)




Additional Reading

Aircraft Dispatcher Courses

Choosing the Right Career in Aviation


*Post updated on November 27, 2019*


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