• What is a TRACON or Terminal Control?
  • When do pilots need to be helped by a TRACON?
  • Where is it usually located and what is the difference between TRACON, En Route and Tower?
  • $\begingroup$ For smaller planes that do not get too high, we are often handed off from Tower, to Approach (which would be a TRACON facility it seems) to Approach to Approach, and eventually back to a Tower. If between TRACONs, and high enough up, we might get handed to a Center for part of the route. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Oct 24 '18 at 13:09

What is a TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol)?

TRACON is a go-between:

  • Climbing departing flights received from TOWERs and handing them over to ARTCC.
  • Descending cruising flights received from ARTCC and handing them over to airfield TOWERs

enter image description here

enter image description here
Potomac consolidated TRACON, operation room (source)

A TRACON is the name in the US for what is also known in other countries as the Terminal Control Center, the control in charge of operations close to one or more large airports (but doesn't manage the operations on the airports themselves). TRACON manage arrivals and departures, the related transitions to/from cruise (associated ATS routes are SID and STAR), and also aircraft transiting in their area.

From Nasa's Air Traffic Management System page (with some adjustments):

TRACONs are facilities containing radar operations from which air traffic controllers direct aircraft:

  • During departure, descent and approach phases of flight.
  • Transitioning from the en route phase through to the approach phase into a destination airport located within the TRACON’s airspace.
  • Transitioning after takeoff to the departure phase until the flight is handed off to the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for its en route phase, [...] via a preferential departure route (PDR) leading away from the departure airport.

The TRACON controller directs the movement of aircraft in and out of that airspace by monitoring a radar screen and maintaining voice contact with pilots.

Controller position:

  • High altitude descent controller
  • Low altitude descent controller
  • Approach controller
  • Feeder controller
  • Departure controller

One TRACON can handle the air traffic for several different airports in its sector.

Although the controller's individual responsibility is only for his or her own sector, all controllers within a TRACON have full radar information on all the aircraft that are under control of the entire TRACON facility. In addition, these controllers are able to communicate with one another instantly- something that contributes significantly to assuring the safety of aircraft passengers.

As emphasized by @TomMcW in his comment, smaller airfields don't have an associated TRACON, the approaches and departures are in this case directly managed by controllers at the airfield tower.

Controllers mostly use the Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS) or the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) to track aircraft:

enter image description here
Philadelphia TRACON (source)

TRACON services for some aerodrome, e.g. Las Vegas Mc Carran, are best known as "Mc Carran Departure" and "Mc Carran Approach" (phraseology).

When do pilots need to be helped by a TRACON?

Pilots are directed to a TRACON center either by the Tower controller (for departures), or the ARTCC controller (for descents and transits).

The aircraft scheduled to land on a given runway are sequenced by the feeder controller, to maximize the landing flow.

Where are TRACON usually located?

TRACON premises by themselves can be located anywhere. Controllers work on radar screens, in the half-light, they don't have a view of the outdoor. Basement rooms are usual.

Depending on the country they may be located close to major airports, within the area they control.

TRACON controlled areas are located around major airports.

What is the difference between TRACON, En Route and Tower?

Taking the US ATC system only into account for this discussion.

1/ Airport operations are controlled by controllers in the tower. They need a view on the runways and other location of the airport. Radar is only used for tracking aircraft on the ground (ground radar). Takeoff and landing clearances are delivered after visual check of the runway status.

enter image description here O’Hare International Airport air traffic control tower (source)

From Nasa's page:

Control towers were established to provide for a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic at an airport and in its vicinity. There are four major controller classifications at control towers:

  • Flight Data Controller
  • Clearance Delivery Controller
  • Ground Controller
  • Local Controller.

enter image description here
Inside an air traffic control tower (source)

2/ Enroute traffic is controlled by Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)

enter image description here
Typical sector radar team (source)

From Nasa's page:

ARTCCs, usually referred to as "Centers," are established primarily to provide Air Traffic Service to aircraft operating on IFR flight plans within the controlled airspace, and principally during the en route phase of flight.

There are 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) in the United States.

enter image description here
US ARTCC boundaries (source)

Any aircraft operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) within the confines of an ARTCC's airspace is controlled by air traffic controllers at the Center. This includes all sorts of different types of aircraft: privately owned single engine aircraft, commuter airlines, military jets and commercial airlines.

ARTCC manages flights between TRACON airspaces, while they are cruising at high altitude.

(You can listen to ARTCC traffic at LiveATC.net)

Read more:

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    $\begingroup$ I was half way through an answer for this but yours is so thorough I don't need to finish it. +1. Only thing I might add is that TRACON facilities are around busy airspace. Smaller airports in the US have approach and departure controllers at the ATCT. I was surprised that the class B airport where I live (MCI) doesn't have a TRACON even though there's an ARTCC in town. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Feb 14 '16 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ "A TRACON is the name in the US for what is also known in other countries as the Terminal Control Center, the control in charge of operations close to one or more large airports (but not on the airports themselves)." - Are TRACONs in the US sometimes located on the airports themselves? I was once inside the Grand Rapids ATC tower, and there was an ATC room directly below the "room with the big windows". My understanding was that the upper room was Grand Rapids Tower and the lower room was TRACON (Grand Rapids Approach and Grand Rapids Departure). $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Oct 24 '18 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @TannerSwett: I don't know for Grand Rapids, but that's the idea, it's usual. For LFPG (De Gaulle), see fig 73 page 107 of this document in French. The room is below one of the towers. When I write "not on the airports themselves" I mean TRACON don't control aircraft on the airports, but they can be (and usually are) located at one major airport. $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 24 '18 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, I see. I wasn't paying attention when I read the sentence; I thought it was saying that the facilities themselves are "not on the airports themselves", but now I see that I was reading it wrong. $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Oct 24 '18 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @TerranSwett Most TRACONs are “up/down” facilities, which means they are in the same building as a tower and may even share staff. Larger ones will be in their own building but still usually on airport property. This contrasts with ARTCCs, which tend to be miles away from any airport. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Sep 18 at 14:19

First off, there needs to be a distinction between the IFR facility and the Tower. Control towers in the US control runways and surface movement areas, they do not "control" airspace. They do sequence aircraft in the local traffic area but that is a topic for another discussion. TRACONS/RAPCONS are IFR facilities and can issue IFR routes/clearances in the air.

TRACONS typically control airspace around busy airports from the ground up to 15,000ft and about 30 miles around including all airports therein. ARTCC's (Centers or Area control Facilities) cover EVERYTHING else. They provide IFR service from the surface up to the top of controlled airspace in the vast majority of the continental US. There are plenty of smallish airports (especially out west) that have towers without an overlying TRACON. In those areas, the ARTCC is the next layer providing arrival/departure separation, sometimes without radar.

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I've been a Professional Airway System Specialist for 29 years. Some of the information in the above article is either misleading or downright incorrect.
Air Traffic Control Towers large enough to require a nearby or co-located TRACON include Digital BRITE Radar displays overhead in the towers.
In my day they were fed by Automated Radar IIA and IIIA systems that were in turn fed by short range (60 mile radars).
Today the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) has replaced the ARTS systems but STARS Automated Radar is still either microwaved to the larger towers or sent via advanced telecommunications.
That information IS NOT used for ground separation it is used by tower controllers to control traffic IN THE AIR that they cannot see which is the majority of the traffic that they control.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome! With your experience, I'm sure you'll be able to help out with a lot of good answers!! Your answer would probably be better suited as comments on the specific answers, but you don't have the rep to do that yet. Could you please edit your answer to include specific quotes from the other answers that you believe to be incorrect? Someone will help you with the formatting if it doesn't come out all that well at first. Also, take a couple of minutes to take the tour and read the help center to get the feel for how things work at Aviation since it's a bit different than other forums. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 24 '18 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Following is the statement I found to be incorrect: $\endgroup$ – Michael Wayne Templeton Oct 24 '18 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ I think your Enter key finger got a little trigger happy, care to try again? :) Also, statements like "the first answer" or "the answer above" are totally irrelevant at any of the StackExchange sites - There are 3 different ways of sorting answers and each user can choose his own way, and, if you and I both select "votes" that will still change over time as different answers are voted on. Best to at least reference the answer's author. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 24 '18 at 13:22

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