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What is an Air Traffic Controller?

What is an Air Traffic Controller?

This nation’s air traffic controllers ensure the safety of about two million aviation passengers per day – or almost one billion people per year. Air traffic controllers use their skills and judgment to safely direct more than 70,000 flights daily to their destinations.

The U.S. air traffic controller workforce consists of approximately 14,000 dedicated, highly-skilled, and well-trained men and women. Most people who fly are probably aware of the controllers working in airport control towers, but many of these professionals work in en route control centers and terminal radar approaches that few people even see or know about. These are all stressful, high energy environments where every controller knows there is no margin for error.

The air traffic controller workforce breaks down as follows:


…work in the glassed-in towers you see at airports. They manage traffic from the airport to a radius of 3 to 30 miles out. They give pilots taxiing and take off instructions, air traffic clearance, and advice based on their own observations and experience. They provide separation between landing and departing aircraft, transfer control of aircraft to the en route center controllers when the aircraft leave their airspace, and receive control of aircraft on flights coming into their airspace.


…work in radar rooms, usually in airport towers. They, like tower controllers, are responsible for the safe separation and movement of aircraft departing, landing, and maneuvering in the airport environment. Working in radar rooms, these controllers utilize terminal radar sensors to assist the aircraft until it reaches the edge of the facility’s airspace, usually about 20 to 50 miles from the airport and up to about 17,000 feet, before handing it off to the Air Route Traffic Control Center.


…work in 24 centers across the country, in a location away from the airport. You will never see them during the course of your flight, but they will normally direct your aircraft for the bulk of your ride. Controlling traffic usually at or above 17,000 feet, the typical center has responsibility for more than 100,000 square miles of airspace generally extending over a number of states. These controllers give aircraft instructions, air traffic clearances and advice regarding flight conditions during the en route portions of flights. Using radar or manual procedures they keep track of the thousands of planes in the sky at any one time. Due to the radar equipment, they work in semi-darkness and never see the aircraft they control except as “targets” on the scope. Air traffic controllers are in high demand.

NATCA’s tower, center, and radar approach controllers are proud to serve you every time you fly!

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