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
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Sleep. bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-03-24/… $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean!" ;-D $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 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/…) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ Learning to play a new musical instrument is often a good option. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 19:04

3 Answers 3


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'
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @yo' That's very true $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2020 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
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 16:59

In the center environment, when sectors within a given area of responsibility are slow, they can be combined so a radar team can work a larger proportion of the airspace. Controllers who are not working traffic may be on break, or they may be assigned other duties, such as reading up on new procedures, letters of agreement, general aviation notices, and the like. There's ALWAYS something to get caught up on, and much of it is required before signing on to a position.

In the olden tymes, most of us would arrive 5 to 10 minutes before the shift started, and catch up the mandatory reading, get a weather briefing, and look at the flows for Denver, so you'd have a general handle on what to expect. We'd do that BEFORE shift start.

Can't do that anymore, because of contract negotiations. FAA has to provide time-on-the-clock for required items.

expeditedescent's answer illustrates some of the differences between Tower/TRACON/Center, though. In the center (at least ZDV), you cannot have anything in the area that would be a distraction to working traffic. No TV, no books, no magazines (not even aviation related), games, etc., except FAA-issued orders and the like. If you're not assigned a position (or just coming in/going out), you normally shouldn't be in the area, unless you're doing some approved activity (discussing PTO, new procedures, etc.)


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