What It Takes To Be An Air Traffic Controller At The World’s Busiest Airport

[Music] our dell 2452 container juliet mike to lima charlie monitor the tower 123.85 400 feet above atlanta hartsfield airport air traffic controllers oversee the skies of the world's busiest airport firing off commands to pilots delta 393 atlanta ground runway two seven right text via lima hold short attacks away dixie they juggle 2600 landings and departures a day in all kinds of weather you can go upstairs and you can look out of that window and you can see nothing at all and still have movement taking place on your airport but air traffic controllers can't mess up not only are lives on the line but this is the ultimate in domino effects if something's going wrong in atlanta or if there are major delays it disrupts air travel all throughout the country and parts of the world back in february before kobit was named a pandemic rally took us up inside the tallest control tower in the country to see what it really takes to be an air traffic controller this is atlanta hartsfield-jackson international airport and these are its five runways and here's the control tower it takes a rotating staff of 58 traffic controllers to keep the airport running pre-pandemic they directed 190 000 flights through takeoff and landing each year these controllers are responsible for any planes inside atlanta hartsfield airspace five miles out and four thousand feet above the airport once a plane enters atlanta's territory air traffic controllers are in charge of communicating with pilots over radio they direct pilots in the air through safe landings and pilots on the ground through takeoffs the goal efficiency efficiency efficiency what can you do to help us be more efficient well the one thing that we're not going to do is make sure that you compromise safety in that equation but the job isn't easy there's a lot of dynamic decisions if an aircraft is coming into land and they have to go around because of an unstable approach the weather didn't cooperate they couldn't get the runway in sight you have to be ready to make a decision to become a fully qualified controller it can take up to five years of classroom simulator and on-the-job training but if they make it the average controller in georgia makes 145 000 a year a job in atlanta's tower is one of the most coveted atc positions in the u.s candidates go through a rigorous hiring process which can take somewhere just under a year we're getting closer to six to nine months once they've been hired incoming controllers start on the simulator so any new controller that would come here they would initially come here and do book work and then follow up with the book work they would come in the simulated room a new controller will do multiple pass-fail scenarios but on the simulator they'll have fewer planes to juggle than the real deal in the tower then they'll have an evaluation and then if they pass that evaluation they can head up to the towers we have two controllers working there today one of them is in training there's never really a slow period to speak of though air traffic always picks up in the summer and days before and after holidays but whether it's christmas eve or just another tuesday controllers have to stay focused i don't know that we want people to be comfortable we want people to be on edge we want people to be at the top of their game controllers have to remember and monitor up to 30 planes at once that's a lot to think about especially since studies show the human brain can only handle seven things in short-term memory at a time i had about 25 to 30 aircraft all on my frequency at one time they're all taxing out for departure but once i said monitor the tower 123.85 that's when they got off my frequency so you know at one time you could have a lot then one minute later it could be all gone the job so mentally draining that the federal aviation administration allows controllers to work for only two hours before they're required to take a break to help make their work easier controllers jobs in the tower are highly specific each runway is assigned either takeoff or landings that controller is just focused on that runway that specific runway and that specific run one way only the controller who clears planes for takeoff or landing is called the local controller there are two or three of them in the tower at once this gentleman is working what we call local five and local five is handling at the moment all the arrival aircraft coming in from the east then there's the

ground controller this guy focuses on directing traffic on the ground telling planes which runway to taxi to so in the case of an approach and landing it might start with the local control saying this to the pilot it'll be delta 222 runway 8 left wincom clearland we'll turn it over to the ground controller as they exit delta 222 contact ground 119.2 they'll go over to ground control ground control will tell them which direction to taxi to get them over to the ramp controllers have universal rules to follow to make sure everyone is safe first there's the lingo all right 1123 taxi ramp keep moving traffic behind you have a good day the international language for air traffic control is english they also have special terminology so no two words will get confused runway two civil rights follow southwest the guys at chicago o'hare or pdk or atlanta tower say the same things for most of our control instructions it doesn't deviate and that consistency is what helps us keep communications down to a minimum minimal talking is important because every plane and every controller our dell 2452 share the same radio frequency 15 airplanes here in atlanta short calls aren't the only way controllers ensure efficiency these strips help the controllers keep track of all the planes moving through that process each one represents a plane it has the flight number the airline the city the planes going to or coming from and the departure or arrival time once the flight plan is generated at its proposed time as you seen right here these will print out this flight delta 1904 is an international flight it's going from atlanta down to marigo so delta 904 and this aircraft here is a boeing 757 200 this airplane is scheduled to depart at 1542 zulu when he departs he's going to he's requesting to go to 37 000 feet so this strip would then once it's ready then place it in one of these strip holders so you'd find the delta 904 which is at echo9 they place echo 9 on here and slide it to the appropriate side a controller will have four or five of these strips active at once this is how they sequence the planes in order of priority the passenger doesn't see the bigger picture the pilot thinks i've been sitting here why the reason why he's holding is because we're trying to provide that sequence so that we can get maximum capacity out at one time sequencing can help move planes along quicker but how exactly does it work here's an example if two planes are going the same direction say to san antonio and houston they have to be at least four miles apart so they don't run into each other in the sky which means time waiting between takeoffs but if a controller alters the sequence using those strips so in this case this is a west a north and a west this aircraft's going to san antonio this aircraft's going to milwaukee and this aircraft's going to houston so we can depart 6 000 feet down the runway and airborne and roll all these that milwaukee flight can take off right behind the san antonio flight and now they've had three planes take off in the same amount of time it makes a big difference for the ground controller to actually provide a good sequence because it's efficient and the aircraft could keep going at the fastest rate and that's what we do and that's our job efficiency means fewer delays if there are major delays it disrupts air travel all throughout the country and parts of the world in 2018 atlanta hartsfield-jackson international airport was ranked the best airport in the u.s for flight delays with the highest percentage of on-time departures 15 airplanes we're looking at a minute behind one another so it's not bad 15 minutes but of course some things are out of their control you can go upstairs and you can look up out of that window and you can see nothing at all and still have movement taking place on your airport then there's days like today clear in a million that's what we call it when it's a beautiful sunshine day and you can see forever we can move a whole bunch of airplanes it's 132 an hour i believe is our arrival rate max on a typical day we try to stay right around in the 120s controllers also have to contend with inclement weather sometimes planes can't land on their first attempt so they'll have to pull up circle back and get in line to land again you have to be ready to make a decision how am i going to get this airplane back up into the air back over to the next air traffic control facility so that they can resequence them back into our pattern luckily some technological advancements have made this whole process a lot easier remember those strips so a lot of this is automated now while controllers may still use the physical strips they also show up on monitors and are automatically sent over to the next controller in the sequence also technology means weather isn't as debilitating as it once was there used to be weather a time when weather would shut your airport down but now being able to forecast and project when that weather is coming we're not surprised like we used to be we go in the cloud sometimes and that's when our equipment is is all we got as dx radar and gps positioning help controllers track a plane we're able to use that technology now to actually separate and identify where those airplanes are legitimately so we can use the term clear for takeoff even though we can't see the physical runway any longer but all that technology doesn't mean these controllers can be any less diligent they have to be focused and undistracted non-stop this is the busiest airport in the world the number the volume i don't think many airports can handle what we do that's the truth all right dell 2452 continued juliet mike to lima charlie monitoring the tower 123.85

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