How Air Traffic Control Works

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by going to This is Heathrow Airport—Britain’s Busiest. Each day, about 650 flights take off from
one of its two runways. At the busiest times, this represents one
aircraft every 45 seconds. Of those 650, about twenty flights daily head
to Frankfurt. Between British Airways and Lufthansa, flights
on this route depart more than hourly throughout the daytime. This makes Frankfurt one of Heathrow’s most
frequently served destinations. Despite the unremarkable nature of such a
flight, the complexity of even this one hour hop is enormous. It takes dozens of people spread out all across
the continent to coordinate and navigate just one of these flights safely to its destination. This is everything that happens within the
90 minutes it takes to for a plane to get from its gate at Heathrow to its gate in Frankfurt. Hours before the flight is scheduled to take
off, British Airways will have sent a flight plan to here—Eurocontrol’s Network Manager
Operations Centre in Brussels. Now, Eurocontrol is an intergovernmental air
traffic management organization. “Prissinotti: [00:01:57] Well, Eurocontrol
is an intergovernmental organization of 43 states in Europe and beyond and we do air
traffic management service transversal.” What that means is that Eurocontrol deals
with a variety of different aspects of the job of managing air traffic in Europe. One element of that is what’s called network
management. This function essentially involves, from this
room, making sure that flights make their way through Europe as safely and smoothly
as possible. That field is headed up by Lacopo Prissinotti—Eurocontrol’s
Director of Network Management. “Prissinotti: [00:05:53] So here you see
that’s our operational room. The scope is to provide services to 43 air
navigation service providers, to provide services to more than 500 airports, and to provide
services to more than 1000 airlines over the network.” One corner of this room is devoted to checking
those flight plans that airlines send in. Now, what they need to check is that these
plans are following the rules. You see, to aircraft, the sky does not look
like this, but rather this. At least in most of Europe, there are thousands
upon thousands of pre-defined airways each with their own rules on directionality and
routes and more so aircraft not only need to fly on these roads but they also need to
follow the rules of the roads. Looking at this map, you can see why, for
example, you won’t see many planes flying over this area in the east of England—there
just aren’t many airways there. Eurocontrol sends the fight plans through
a program to check that they follows these rules but if the computer rejects it, then
it goes to these people in about 2% of cases who coordinate with the airline to fix it
manually. From there, they’ll distribute the flight
plans to all the air traffic control centers that each aircraft is expected to fly over. That process happens before the flight has
even taken off. Going back to that British Airways, Heathrow
to Frankfurt flight, once their plan is approved, the plane is fueled, loaded, and ready to
go, the pilot will get approval from British Airways’ flight dispatcher and Heathrow’s
ground control to push back. Ground control at Heathrow is responsible
for navigating all the vehicles and planes safely across the apron up until when they
reach the runway. The moment an aircraft gets to the runway,
they are then the responsibility of tower control which, assuming all is well, clears
them for takeoff. As the plane reaches altitude, it will be
passed off to the London Terminal Control Centre located near Southampton which navigates
aircraft through the complex London-area airspace until they reach 24,500 feet, or flight level
245, which for this flight should be just about when it reaches the coast. From there, they’ll be transferred to the
London Area Control Centre, which is physically located in the same building, to navigate
them across the channel. Once they reach about halfway across, however,
they leave the UK’s airspace and enter Belgium’s. With that, they are now the responsibility
of the Maastricht Upper Area Control Center—also managed by Eurocontrol. “Santurbano: [00:00:20] We are a European
nonprofit. A cross-border military civil air navigation
service provider. And, uh, yeah, our job is that we handle safely
and in an efficient and performed way all traffic above flight level 245—24,500 feet.” To reiterate, they handle traffic across this
whole area, above 24,500 feet or 7,500 meters. “Santurbano: [00:01:45] So we manage, what,
more or less 1.9 Million of movements per year, so between 5,000 and 5,700 movements
depending on the on the season and the day, per day.” It’s one of the busiest and most complex
airspaces in Europe especially as it receives a significant amount of traffic climbing from
or descending into four of of Europe’s five busiest airports—Heathrow, Schiphol, Frankfurt,
and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Every single one of those flights, as long
as it’s between flight level 245 and 660, is in contact with the people in this room. Now, the Maastricht control centre’s airspace
is divided into three sector groups—the Brussels, Hannover, and DECO sector groups. Each sector group is staffed by their own
set of controllers who only work on their group—a Brussels sector group controller
would very rarely switch over to the Hannover group, for example. Many controllers spend their entire careers
working at one control center within one sector group. This allows them to really learn the design
of their airspace in depth. Each of the sector groups is then divided
into sectors themselves. Now, sectors can be divided both horizontally
and vertically. For example, there’s the Luxembourg sector,
between flight level 245 and 355, and also the Luxembourg High sector, above flight level
335. At the very busiest times, each sector will
have its own dedicated set of controllers. At less busy times, though, they can and do
combine the upper and lower sector together so they’re staffed by one set of controllers. At the least busy times, such as in the middle
of the night, they’ll often combine a number of sectors. For example, the entirety of Belgian airspace
is typically controlled by one set of controllers in the dead of night. In charge of each sector are two controllers
working as a team. One is in charge of talking to pilots, the
other is in charge of talking to their counterparts at other sectors to coordinate handovers. Now, in practice, for that London to Frankfurt
flight, before it enters Maastricht’s airspace in the Koksy sector, they’ll receive info
on where and at which flight level it will arrive. They’ll also get info from the flight plan
on where it’s supposed to exit their sector. An aircraft also might enter at one altitude
and be planned to exit at another. The task is then to safely navigate the aircraft
from the entry point to exit point and deliver it to the next sector at the desired altitude. Now, assuming no added obstructions such as
weather or airspace closures, the main obstacles planes need to avoid at this altitude are
other planes. There are rules about how close a plane can
be to another in order to avoid any chance of midair collision and the controller’s
job is to make sure that these rules are not broken or, if they are, to get to the correct
level of separation as soon as possible. An aircraft must be either vertically or horizontally
separated from all others at any given time. What this means is that typically, a commercial
aircraft cruising at this altitude can be as little as 1000 vertical feet or 300 vertical
meters away from another. That’s vertical separation. Alternatively, an aircraft can be horizontally
separated. They have to be at least 5 nautical miles,
6 miles, or 9 kilometers apart if they’re within 1000 feet vertically. Now, in order to achieve the goals of getting
the aircraft to its exit point without breaking minimum separation, there are three factors
the controller can instruct the pilot to change—speed, altitude, and direction. That is essentially what a controller spends
most of their time doing—determining where the aircraft needs to go, how to get it there,
and communicating that to the pilot. Soon enough, after just a few minutes, as
the aircraft reaches its exit point from the sector, it will be passed onto the controller
of the next sector. In this case, it’ll go into Nicky Sector,
then Olno sector, then it will move onto airspace beyond what the Maastricht Upper Area Control
Centre manages. As the plane starts to descends it will be
passed onto the controllers dealing with lower airspace, then approach and tower control
to guide it into landing. All told, on just this hour long flight, more
than a dozen air traffic controllers will have dealt with this aircraft. But that’s what happens when absolutely
everything is going right, which is rarely the case. You see, back at Eurocontrol’s network manager
room, the second thing they do with the flight plans they receive is make sure that once
an aircraft gets flying, there are actually enough air traffic controllers to manage it.“Thomas:
[00:01:50] So, air traffic control, they decide on their capacity i.e. how many flights can
safely be handled in one piece of airspace by one air traffic controller. That’s their decision based on their staffing,
based on their infrastructure, their tools, and that is communicated to us.” So, there’s a limited number of flights
a single air traffic controller can handle, but there’s also a limited number of air
traffic controllers. It’s no secret that Europe, along with much
of the world, is suffering through an air traffic controller shortage right now. Simultaneously, also along with much of the
world, Europe has been experiencing a tremendous increase in its number of flights. This supply and demand mismatch has consequences. In 2018, 60% of all en-route delays—as in,
while the aircraft is actually flying—were because of not having enough air traffic control
capacity. Part of Eurocontrol’s job, therefore, is
to utilize the limited resource in the most effective way possible. Often, they reduce overall delays by delaying
flights. Sometimes its just for a few minutes, sometimes
it’s for longer, but if you’re flying in Europe and you hear that your flight is
delayed for air traffic control reasons, that decision was probably made in this room. It’s just like a ramp meter on a highway—they
let a manageable number of flights fly at any given time when there are capacity constraints. Now, when a flight receives a delay by Eurocontrol,
the airline essentially has two choices—accept the delay and wait it out or fly a different
route. Airlines have access to Eurocontrol’s system
to help them make this decision.“Thomas: [00:09:26] For instance here is a flight,
it’s a Thomas Cook flight from Manchester going to Antalya in Turkey and they have planned
this blue route here.” This is the route that Thomas Cook has decided
is best for them—it’s the least expensive considering fuel costs, overflight costs,
and everything. Given that it flies through capacity constrained
areas, though, to fly this route, they would have to sit through a delay. “Thomas: [00:10:05] Through our system now
they can look at to see OK where our routes that do not give them delay. Those are all the blue routes you can see
here and actually then there is a gray route here which is the shortest of the blue. A system says if you want to avoid your route
which is delay you can take Blue routes or the shortest blue which is the grey and it’s
up to you.” The airline can then go and decide whether
it’s worth it to them to fly the alternate route or wait out the delay. Eurocontrol’s network management role really
is most applicable on the worst days for flying in Europe. Their job is to make the bad days as ok as
possible. An example of a really bad day for flying
was Thursday, May 9, 2019. The main issue was a large-scale French air
traffic controller strike meaning there was very little air traffic control capacity in
French airspace—one of the busiest areas. “Celik: [00:03:56] If you look at this map,
that shows the magnitude of the impact on the sectors. The color red means that there were delays
in the order of 45 minutes or above per flight.” On days such as this, many airlines will choose
to fly around France as to be less delayed but, of course, the ATC centers in the surrounding
countries need to be able to cope with demand. “Celik: [00:04:30] Starting from three to
four days before this event is confirmed we would coordinate with Spain, North African
countries, Algeria, Tunisia, we would coordinate with Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Karlsruhe,
we would coordinate with Maastricht and UK to be able to get extra capacity for all those
who has to go out. So one alternative route from UK to go down
to south of Spain and continuation on that what we called Tango route.” Tango route takes planes way out west into
oceanic airspace to take a wide curve around French airspace and is commonly flown when
French airspace is restricted. It is, of course, not efficient. A flight from Alicante to London, for example,
which normally takes just two hours, would take over three by using Tango route but overall,
it would typically arrive earlier than if they waited for approval to fly through French
airspace. What made the 9th of May even worse is that
drones were spotted at Frankfurt airport meaning all arrivals and departures were stopped. “Celik: [00:14:02] What we do we immediately
get in contact with all the airports around if you like. You know this was the case in Frankfurt. We contacted Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, Brussels
immediately to try to understand incoming flights, so live traffic, where they could
land.” Eurocontrol will get information from the
surrounding airports on how many diverted aircraft they can handle and passes this information
onto airlines so they can quickly book a diversion slot for their aircraft. All told, there were over 300,000 minutes
of delays on May 9th, but initial calculations determined that there was the potential for
over 1 million minutes of delays which means that Eurocontrol likely succeeded in their
task of improving the day. Eurocontrol’s network manager room is expected
to be quite busy in the coming months. Right now, in early June, they already know
summer 2019 is going to be messy. It’s the busiest period of the year for
flights and there’s actually less air traffic control capacity than there was in summer
2018 when they had 26 million minutes of delays. They fear this summer could be worse but,
they made their action plan months ago, and will be here nonstop through the coming months
to make the summer travel season as smooth as it can be. Overall, this room, air traffic control centers,
and the rest of the world’s air traffic management infrastructure are crucial tools
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