On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. Only one-third are commercial carriers, like American, United or Southwest. On an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights (major and regional airlines), 27,178 general aviation flights (private planes), 24,548 air taxi flights (planes for hire), 5,260 military flights and 2,148 air cargo flights (Federal Express, UPS, etc.). At any given moment, roughly 5,000 planes are in the skies above the United States. In one year, controllers handle an average of 64 million takeoffs and landings.
For every one flight you see listed on an airport monitor, two you don’t see show up on air traffic controllers’ screens. It would take approximately 7,300 airport terminal monitors to show all the flights controllers handle in a single day and approximately 460 monitors to show the number of flights being handled at any one time.
There are 14,305 air traffic controllers that work for the Federal Aviation Administration, according to FAA data (dated Aug. 2006). That’s a drastic decline from the 15,386 controllers the FAA employed in September 2003. For Fiscal Year 2007, the FAA says it expects to hire only 1,136 controllers (as compared to 1,248 which it says it would hire according to its 2004 Controller Workforce Plan) and expects losses of 1,005 — 53 percent higher than originally forecast. This change negates the agency’s ability to recoup net losses in 2004 and 2005.
In addition, in 1994, the FAA began to contract out air traffic control towers and today, 131 FAA facilities are contracted out. NATCA also represents many controllers who work at these facilities.
Air traffic controllers work at each of the 266 control towers operated by the FAA in the 50 states and in places such as San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Pago Pago. FAA air traffic facilities also consist of 21 air route traffic control centers (ARTCC), 185 terminal radar approach control facilities (TRACON), two radar approach control facilities (RAPCON), three combined center/radar approach control facilities (CERAP), the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va., 61 automated flight service stations, 15 flight service stations and 14 Alaskan rotational flight service stations.
The definition is simple: An operation is an aircraft handled by an air traffic control facility. But the way operations are officially counted is a bit complex. For example, an operation at the Chicago TRACON is also an operation at the Chicago ARTCC once the aircraft enters that facility’s airspace. But each facility only counts it once. For airport towers, an arrival does not count as an operation, but a departure counts as two. Why? Because the aircraft had to arrive first in order to depart.
No matter how many controllers work the plane or how many sectors of airspace it crosses, it only counts as one operation for the facility.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International was the busiest in 2006, handling 976,313 takeoffs and landings. Chicago O’Hare was second, with 958,643. Next on the list of busiest airports, in order, are Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles International, Las Vegas, Denver, and Houston Intercontinental.
An operational error occurs when two aircraft get closer than the FAA’s minimum separation standards allow. The FAA categorizes errors based on the severity of the breach of separation standards and nearly all of the errors, it has found, are of the minor category, where the separation threshold was only slightly violated. Operational errors are very rare, only occurring on average less than one time for each 100,000 operations (a takeoff, landing or aircraft on the radar screen) handled by controllers.
In 2002, controllers handled 158,167,995 operations and made just 1,061 operational errors. That’s an 11 percent reduction in errors from 2001 figures, while operations were only down three percent from the year before. Additionally, the FAA reported a seven percent decline in operational errors from Oct. 1, 2002 through March 30, 2003, compared with the same period a year ago. While controllers believe one error is too many and are always working on ways to reduce errors, they are proud of this achievement.
A runway incursion is an incident where an aircraft enters a runway without an air traffic control clearance. For instance, most runway incursions are caused by pilots crossing the “hold line.” Runway incursions have decreased steadily in recent years, going from 432 in 2000 to 339 in 2002 to 326 in 2004 and finally to 330 in 2006. Considering controllers at airport control towers handled more than 44 million operations in 2006, the incidents of runway incursions are remarkably few. However, controllers, pilots, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board continue to work toward reducing incursions even further.
Two new pieces of technology are aiding controllers. The Airport Movement Area Safety System has been commissioned at over 30 airports. The Airport Surface Detection Equipment- Model X (ASDE-X) is scheduled to be deployed at 34 airports over the next several years. Both systems warn the controller, not the pilots, of potential incursions. But only ASDE-X works in poor weather conditions.