Things You Didn't Know About Air Traffic Control

Air traffic controllers have one of the most intense jobs on the planet: making sure that planes full of people make it in and out of airports safely and efficiently. Plenty of films have depicted air traffic controllers "talking down" pilots in peril and just barely managing to save planeloads of sobbing passengers. But there are some facts about air traffic control that Hollywood gets wrong (yes, even Pushing Tin).

One of the biggest misconceptions about ATCs (besides confusing them for the people with the paddles and the flags on the runways) is the level of responsibility they actually have for the safety of passengers. It's true that they are a vital cog in the machine, but ATCs are not actually totally responsible for making sure that planes arrive and depart safely (pilots bear most of that burden). ATCs also aren't the most stressed-out people on the planet, even though they do suffer from fatigue and stress-related illnesses (just not that much more than many other professions). Read on for more interesting things you might not know about the high-stakes world of air traffic control.
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  • Air Traffic Control Can't Track Planes Via GPS

    Air Traffic Control Can't Track Planes Via GPS
    Photo: Jobriga / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    GPS (Global Positioning System) gadgets help millions of people navigate around the world every day, but did you know that air traffic control doesn't use GPS satellite technology to track planes? It sounds strange, but it's true: planes are full of people with GPS-enabled smartphones, but the plane itself is not GPS-enabled. The 7,000 aircraft flying over the US every day instead use point-to-point, ground-based radar. 
  • US Air Traffic Controllers Use 40-Year-Old Technology

    US Air Traffic Controllers Use 40-Year-Old Technology
    Photo: NATS Press Office / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    It's called "Host": a piece of technology older than the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or the original Atari... or, as Wired points out, older than the Speak & Spell! So why is Host still used to guide planes in air traffic control towers across the US? Simply put: because change is hard (especially for the FAA). The agency is touting an upgrade to the wildly inefficient Host system called NextGen, and has even begun to implement it in stages, but the rollout has been a mess of bugs, delays, and a ton of other issues.
  • Air Traffic Control Systems Can Be Hacked With a $450 Portable Transmitter

    Here's a scary thought: the 40-year-old technology that is used in US air traffic control centers can be hacked using a $450 portable transmitter you can buy online. Seriously! In April 2014, a hacker tried to divert a plane at Reagan International (the pilot reported an "unknown voice"). It also happened 25 times in the UK in 2015 alone. If caught, hackers attempting this trick in the US could face five years in jail (and presumably a hell of a lot longer if they did any serious damage).
  • Future Air Traffic Controllers May Be Hundreds of Miles from the Airport

    Future Air Traffic Controllers May Be Hundreds of Miles from the Airport
    Photo: NATS Press Office / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    Some airports around the world are testing out "remote towers" that place the air traffic controller hundreds of miles from the action. High definition cameras, sensors, and monitors allow ATCs to do their jobs as if they were at the airport. The technology is so sensitive that it can even detect fog and animals on the runway.
  • You Can Become an Air Traffic Controller With an Associate's Degree

    You Can Become an Air Traffic Controller With an Associate's Degree
    Photo: NATS Press Office / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    How do you become an air traffic controller? It isn't easy, but it also doesn't require an advanced degree. You can get an FAA-approved associate's degree from one of about 30 schools across the country and get hired as an air traffic controller. There are basically two other options if you want the gig: join the Air Force or get hired directly through the FAA via their Air Traffic Controller Academy in Oklahoma City, OK.
  • Air Traffic Control Towers Have Slanted Windows to Minimize Distractions

    Air Traffic Control Towers Have Slanted Windows to Minimize Distractions
    Photo: AndrewC75 / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    Have you ever noticed how most air traffic control towers have the same slanted, tinted windows? It's not for the pilot's sake, as some have suspected: it's for the air traffic controllers. The windows "bounce" reflections from monitors and smartphones (or any other internal light source) up to the ceiling so they won't be mistaken for aircraft.