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Some airports have two separated frequencies related to arrival. Arrival and approach.

When I navigate to some airports that have both frequencies, I first contact the arrival controller then, at a specific point, arrival controller hands over me to the approach controller, who has a discrete frequency.

What's the difference between the role of arrival controller and approach controller?

Conversely, when I navigate to some airports that only have an approach frequency, approach controller controls me until contacting tower controller.

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It depends on the size, complexity and number of airports served by the approach control (in the U.S. typically called a TRACON- Terminal Radar Approach Control). Also, there may be different controller positions (sectors) within the TRACON variously (internally) named "Approach," "Arrival," "Finals," "North Arrivals," "East Departures," etc.

Again, these are internal sector designations (they can vary significantly between facilities) and typically are used for internal communication (sector to sector or sector to a specific tower) and communication with other (usually adjoining) facilities for traffic coordination purposes.

Generally, when you have been "handed off" from one air traffic facility to another (like being handed off from an ARTCC - Air Route Traffic Control Center to a TRACON) you will be instructed to contact "XYZ Approach" on a specific frequency. Internally in the TRACON this could be (but not necessarily) identified as the "Arrival" sector. This controller would then be responsible for providing separation, vectors, speed control, altitude assignments, monitoring/controlling your arrival via a Standard Terminal Arrival (STAR) etc. until you get closer to your ultimate destination airport, which could be the Hub airport (major/primary airport) or any one of many possible satellite airports within the TRACON's area of responsibility.

Again, there could be several internal (to the TRACON) other sectors that you could subsequently be handed off to depending on the size, complexity, and number of airports within that TRACON's airspace. Or you may be just talking to one TRACON controller until instructed to contact the tower.

Also, it is common that once you're handed off to that TRACON and instructed to contact "XYZ Approach" on a specific frequency, during the internal handoffs between sectors within that TRACON you are instructed to "contact approach" on (some frequency) as opposed to being instructed, for example, to "contact finals" (or using some other internal TRACON sector name) .

Lastly, an "Arrival" controller and an "Approach" controller, within a TRACON, are just different generalized nomenclatures for controller positions within that facility and their functional roles are not specifically distinct like a Ground controller vs a Local controller in a Tower. And these nomenclatures may differ depending on the TRACON.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed answer. Your answer was very helpful for understanding the difference between arrival and approach. Our country uses ICAO standards, but I think that's not the problem. I can't find any references anywhere about this question, so it would be same as faa. Just separating the sectors and then lessening workload concentration. $\endgroup$
    – moon
    Dec 17 '21 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ @moon: yes. I think you understand. $\endgroup$
    – 757toga
    Dec 17 '21 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ I am in a ICAO country and replace the TRACON with TCU and ARTCC with ATSC and the answer is exactly the same. Those terms are interchanged so often by everyone they have lost their individual meaning to some extent. $\endgroup$
    – Bullfrog
    Jan 12 at 12:42
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757's answer is pretty comprehensive. But to clarify a few things...

In the US, the TRACON—Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol—consists of one-to-several sectors. Like 757 said, these sectors have different names internally; these names might refer to functions (Arrival, Final, Departure, Satellite), relative positions (High North, Low East), or an important fix within each sector (more common at ARTCCs but it shows up at some TRACONs too).

If sectors are named according to function, that is only a generality; each controller is responsible for providing required separation and other services just the same as all the other controllers. It might be the case that an "arrival" sector works mostly arrival streams, and "departure" works mainly departing aircraft—but that's a post-facto definition. All of the controllers will use the callsign "Podunk Approach" when talking to pilots, except if the pilot has just departed an airport in which case the controller will probably identify themselves as "Podunk Departure." But when getting a frequency change to another sector, or when a neighboring facility gives you a frequency change to the TRACON, they will always reference "Podunk Approach"—even if you happen to be going to the sector named "Departure."1
A "Final" sector will more likely work nothing but final traffic, but this is still not to say that they can't talk to an overflight or something like that.

There is one exception. When conducting radar approaches, that is, an instrument approach where the guidance is not from a NAVAID or GPS but instead from a controller issuing very precise vectors, the controller will identify themselves as "Podunk Final Controller," and that's also what the controller before them will say when switching you. This controller's sole job is to vector you down the final approach course to the runway, and other controllers in the TRACON should keep their traffic away from you without bothering the final controller.


1At my facility one of the neighboring TRACONs has a "Departure" sector which works the higher half of the airspace along our border. I transfer arrivals overflights to them all the time, and instruct the pilots to contact "CityName Approach."

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed answer. However, our country adapted ICAO standards. There's no definition of TRACON.. ; ( In the wide range, is it true why the airport authorities separated arrival and approach only for reducing their workload concentration by having two discrete frequencies and controllers? $\endgroup$
    – moon
    Dec 17 '21 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it would be to reduce the workload of the controllers, primarily by reducing the size of the airspace they are responsible for and secondarily by attempting to ensure that all aircraft within their jurisdiction are doing similar things (which is not always possible to ensure). This sectorization is something internal to the air traffic control provider and would be determined by that organization, not by anyone associated with the airport itself. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Dec 17 '21 at 2:31

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