I know at larger airports, it's NEVER a slow time. But what about at smaller airports that are large enough to rate manned ATC, but things aren't always fast-paced, high-traffic like at JFK or DFW, etc. (say an airport like JLN (Joplin Regional))?

What other duties do ATC personnel do when the traffic is light? Do they just sit and stare all day at the readouts, waiting for any one aircraft to appear and call in? Or are there other "busy work" items they do when things are 'slow' and they are listening for air traffic to call in for instructions?

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    $\begingroup$ They can be quite talkative at times, especially at night, even at busy places like Boston, MA, which is quite a large east coast airport. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Jan 18 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Sleep. bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-03-24/… $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jan 19 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean!" ;-D $\endgroup$ – Michael Jan 19 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JScarry: indeed, scary but one of the two controllers in the tower was taking a break in the 2002 Überlingen midair collision (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) $\endgroup$ – Quora Feans Jan 20 at 12:49

Admin stuff, emails, chat with a colleague if you are not alone on shift, read up on (ever changing) procedures, eat, read a book, make sure the coffee machine works, meditate, watch TV. Anything goes, really, as long as you keep an eye on the radar and stay close enough to hear the radio and answer the phone. Of course, this is all assuming that there are literally no aircraft in the sector at that time (which happens regularily at smaller airports). Whenever you have any active aircraft, you obviously need to stay quite focused on that.

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    $\begingroup$ I think there's an important unsaid bottom line: You need to be able to switch back to "fully focused" within a second, no matter what you were doing. $\endgroup$ – yo' Jan 20 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @yo' That's very true $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Jan 20 at 18:22

Traffic is fairly predictable. They operate with more personell during rush hour and with much less at night, so it rarely happens that a controller is idling.

During peak times there are separate controllers for apron operations, clearance delivery, taxiing, takeoffs and landings, arrivals, departures and for each en-route sector. During slow times, a single controller handles multiple roles or sectors.

Sometimes ATC is so understaffed at night that a controller might be more busy than during the day. For example, the Überlingen mid-air collision was caused by the lone controller beeing overwhelmed by simultaneous events on two workstations that would normally be operated by two people.

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    $\begingroup$ My primary airport is staffed 6a-10p, but when the weather is below VFR mins, they can go hours between planes because the flight schools aren't flying and most transient IFR traffic prefers airports closer to the city. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Jan 20 at 16:59

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