ATC, ATCT, TRACON, ARTCC -- Who are We Talking to and Why?

Air Traffic Control

ATC (Air Traffic Control) is a really big part of the safe operation of a flight. Even though their goals are similar, ATC assists pilots in different phases of reaching their destination utilizing different specialties and methods. So, who are we talking to and why?

What Does Air Traffic Control Do?

  • The controller’s responsibility is to provide a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic
  • Provide safety alerts to aircraft
  • Properly sequence aircraft while ensuring that traffic remains a safe distance from each other

Where do ATC controllers Work?

Controllers work in three different specializations:

(1) Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT)

  • They have windows! ATCTs monitor aircraft that are on the ground or airborne within 5 miles of the airport. Due to the close proximity and range of service, these controllers use line of sight to help aid in the safe flow of traffic.
  • They even have light guns to serve as another means of communication with airborne or ground-based traffic.

ATC Light Gun Signals

  • Clearance delivery— Clears a pilot to fly a specific predetermined or amended route
  • Ground control— provides pilots with taxi instructions to or from the active runway
  • Local control—they are responsible for controlling aircraft that are prepared for departure or approach (“Cleared for takeoff Runway… or cleared for landing runway…”). They are usually referred to as just ATC.

  (2) Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

  • They once used large vacuum tube radar scopes to watch dots (aircraft) transition across the screen via the radar line of sight. 

Terminal Radar Approach Control

  • They provide en-route air traffic services to low altitude aircraft VFR or IFR flight plans.
  • TRACON controllers have airspace of a 50-mile radius centered at the primary airport usually from the surface to approximately 10,000 ft.

(3) Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC or “Center”)

  • A Center does not have to be at or even near an airport. They are usually in less populated or more rural areas. There are 21 centers across the United States. The responsibilities of a TRACON controller and ARTCC are similar. They both provide air traffic services to aircraft, but more specifically ARTCC provides services for flights operating at high altitudes on IFR flight plans during an en-route phase of flight. According to the FAR/AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary, it states that “when equipment capabilities and controller workload permit, certain advisory/assistance services may be provided to VFR aircraft.”
  • Several hundred controllers controlling several million square miles of airspace.
  • Usually from 11,000 ft to the edge of outer space (60,000 feet)!

Trivia Question: Why aren’t ARTCC’s Located near an airport? Provide your answers in the comments below!