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Are the computer screens used by ATC generic across different countries? I.e., do ATCs around the world simply purchase the same software from a few companies, or do each of them develop their own system and end up with different user interfaces?

For an analogy of aircrafts, most of the controls and instruments are universal across pretty much all aircrafts, be it Cessna, Piper, Airbus, Boeing, CRJ etc. Any trained pilot would likely recognize the important controls (e.g. throttle, flap lever, attitude indicator) right away; certain colors and symbols are also expected.

Is this the same for the computer systems used by ATC? E.g. if a controller from the US goes to Australia, is he expected to understand and know how to operate the equipment right away?

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Most ATC software systems are developed by a few large companies. Companies that produce such software include Lockheed Martin, Thales, Raytheon, Indra, Comsoft, Adacel (and maybe a few others). It's not a big market since there are only a limited number of customers (countries) and safety critical software is very expensive to develop.

One interesting offering is the Albatross open source ATC software. This isn't a complete system (yet?) but some parts are available now. I'm not sure whether this software is actually used in operations anywhere at this point.

Most ATC providers (which are usually run or owned by their government, though not always) do not do their own software development. They buy a system from one of the established vendors, who may do some amount of customisation work ranging from none to extensive, perhaps with a support contract for future fixes or enhancements. There are a few exceptions though, for example Airways New Zealand uses software originally developed by a large vendor but also has an in-house software development group who maintains, enhances, and extends the existing software.

Each system has the same general operating concept - an ASD (Air Situation Display) which shows the locations of aircraft, plus auxiliary windows that may contain all kinds of other things used for communication and coordination. Like any sophisticated computer software, the general idea of two different systems might appear the same, but be completely different to actually operate (think of Photoshop vs. Gimp, or Microsoft Word vs. Apple Pages).

A qualified controller from the US would not be expected to be able to operate in Australia straight away. Not only will the software be different (different mouse clicks, or different key commands), but also the rules of air traffic control can be different between countries. Furthermore, a controller must become familiar with the local airspace and operating procedures.

Having said that, the general skills of air traffic controllers are portable between countries. On moving from one country to another, a controller would be expected to go through a certain amount of training in their new country, which could range from brief familiarisation to more rigorous retraining.

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Like anything it varies from place to place and even within countries. This is mainly because not every ATC facility is built at the same time. You are more likely to find equipment from the same era as the building or the last time it had a major over haul. For what its worth you are correct that there are only a handful of companies making ATC equipment (radar etc.) but through out the course of time the models vary. Some less economically profitable countries may even buy units second hand from others. In the end of the day Radar is Radar and most if not all radar screens will look at least generally similar.

FWIW airplanes have highly varying control designs. While Boeing employs a yoke Airbus is partial to the side stick. Cessna's typically use push/pull throttles that are rod style as well as electric flaps while Piper uses lever throttles and Johnson bar flaps, Older Mooneys even sport johnson bar landing gear... So not all planes are made the same shy of the instruments which are generally the same aside from older Russian attitude indicators which appear reversed from the ones typically found in other planes. I will agree that any pilot should be able to identify the controls they are of highly varying design.

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  • $\begingroup$ While cockpit designs do vary, some elementary designs are kept the same, so they can be easily identified. For example you won't find the prop lever in green and the mixture in purple. $\endgroup$ – kevin Sep 24 '15 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ True I have however seen a white prop lever $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 24 '15 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ And this Ercoupe with a deceiving red throttle lever $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 24 '15 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting cockpit. But my question is asking more like, in general sense $\endgroup$ – kevin Sep 24 '15 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ I understand I was just throwing it out there for the sake of an example. Generally modern stuff is color coded but control layout does vary. $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 24 '15 at 15:25

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