How Air Traffic Controllers Guide Your Flights

You don’t see air traffic controllers when you travel, but if your trips are trouble-free, they deserve considerable credit. At least a dozen of them track the progress of every flight you take.

Their work starts even before you take off. First, your pilots contact ATIS (automatic terminal information service), a continuously updated recording that reports the active runway number, weather conditions, and other data. Then they call “clearance delivery” to obtain the route, or flight plan, that they must follow from the departure airport to their destination. Next they contact “ground control” and advise it that they have the ATIS information and a clearance and are ready for taxi instructions. Only after the crew acknowledges those instructions is the aircraft ready to taxi from the parking ramp to the runway.

At the departure end of the runway, the pilots contact the air-traffic-control tower, which clears them for takeoff. As the aircraft climbs away from the airport, the tower controller hands it off to a departure controller, who oversees it until it reaches its cruise phase, at which point one or more en route controllers take over. The en route controller and the crew maintain continuous radio and radar contact.

Unraveling Airport IDs

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As the aircraft nears its destination, the crew listens to the arrival airport’s ATIS before calling “approach control,” which sequences the flight for landing. When the airplane is about 10 minutes from touching down, it is handed off to the tower controller, who clears it to land. Once it does so and leaves the runway, ground control provides taxi instructions to the ramp.