What do air traffic controllers do?

They issue instructions, advice and information to pilots by radio to keep air traffic flying safely, efficiently and quickly. Broadly, they tell aircraft to go up, go down, turn right, turn left speed up and slow down. They track the progress of the pilots they talk to using the latest in radar and software technology. Although aircraft fly to pre-determined schedules, they don’t fly exactly the same way each day. Air traffic controllers need to deal quickly with these changing flight plans and unexpected events such as the weather, unscheduled traffic and emergency situations. There are three broad categories for controllers. Area or en-route controllers are based in centres at Swanwick in Hampshire, and Prestwick in Ayrshire. They deal with aircraft at high altitude using the main airways from across Europe and the North Atlantic, heading for UK airports or destinations abroad. Aircraft making their way to the UK’s busiest airports in the London area are then handed over to controllers in the terminal control operations room at Swanwick. Approach controllers manage some of the busiest and most complex airspace in the world as air traffic is streamed for approach to these airports. At the airports, tower controllers take over when aircraft are between 10 and 15 miles from landing. They manage the remainder of their flight, ensuring safe separation, until they land and, in the busier airports, guide them to their stands. At NATS, our controllers also work on development projects such as new controller tools and airspace change and design where their expertise and input is essential in ensuring efficient and effective delivery.


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