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We all know air traffic controllers have one of the hardest, most stressful jobs on the planet... day after day they handle thousands of aircraft with the cool of a seasoned gunfighter and the surgical precision of a Jenga-playing robot.

But what about when there's no aircraft around? Perhaps it's freezing rain and there no chance of an aircraft landing. Or perhaps the (extremely) high volume of flight training at a particular field suddenly drops to nearly zero over spring break. Or maybe fate and luck just got together and no one wants to go to that airport today.

What do controllers do when there's no aircraft in their area, and especially what do they do when there's not likely to be any aircraft for an extended period (1+ hours)

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    $\begingroup$ Tetris. Have you seen mode 6 on their scopes? $\endgroup$ – Simon Mar 7 '15 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect the answer varies widely depending on the country involved. Not being able to get ahold of controllers in third word countries or, for that matter, in Spain when you were the only airplane around used to be a common problem before I retired in 1999. $\endgroup$ – Terry Mar 7 '15 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ At some French airfields, when you phone in your flight plan, they say, "If you arrive around 1300 and can't get an answer on the radio, it's probably because the controllers are at lunch." $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Mar 7 '15 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ They play Galaga $\endgroup$ – SSumner Mar 8 '15 at 0:33
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The airspace around the world is divided into sectors within a Flight Information Region (FIR) /Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) / Area Control Center (ACC), which range from very small and tight airspace pieces to larger combinations or enroute sectors. Enroute sectors will usually be larger than Terminal Maneouvering Areas (TMA).

During peak-hours, these sectors will be handled by one controller responsible for each sector. If capacity and traffic flow permit, these sectors can be combined and two sectors will be handled by the same controller.

Below is a picture of the Paderborn Lower Sector, ranging from GND to FL135. This is usually a stand-alone sector which only covers approaches to Paderborn (EDLP) and Dortmund Airports (EDLW).

enter image description here
(Image Source: Own Work - Author: SentryRaven)

If traffic permits, the adjacent sector Hamm Lower from GND to FL115, handling arrivals and departures to Münster (EDDG), will be handed over to the controller responsible for Paderborn Lower. This can also be done vice-versa, where the Hamm Lower controller becomes responsible for the Paderborn Lower sector.

enter image description here
(Image Source: Own Work - Author: SentryRaven)

TMA controllers not only handle IFR aircraft approaching or departing from airfields within their sector, but also any enroute traffic crossing the sector, VFR traffic requesting to cross airspaces which require prior permission and other tasks.

As Chatty already pointed out in his answer, controllers take breaks between working their sectors and sometimes often switch sectors during a shift. A controller working Paderborn Lower during the beginning of his shift can end up working Hamm Lower towards the end of his shift with adequate breaks in between their sessions.

See this related question:
What is the maximum number of planes a controller can control?

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In many parts of the world, air traffic control within each FIR is actually further sub-divided into sectors. These sectors can all have their own controllers, but if things are slow then the sectors can be combined together so that a single controller is now looking at an even bigger area. If this happens, they often just take longer breaks between working the position.

So all that to say, just because they controllers are on shift doesn't mean they're actually working traffic the whole time. If things are slow for hours on end, they may only work 40 minutes and then get an hour off or something like that.

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