Six Interesting Facts About Air Traffic Control

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Dutch skies are in constant flux. And I’m not just talking about the weather… You only need to look at flightradar24 to see how many aircraft move through Dutch airspace. I went along to Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL) at Schiphol to learn about how it all works.

#1 – Towering
Air traffic controllers don’t all sit in a tower. In fact, most of them don’t! Only the traffic at the airport and within a radius of about 15 km around Schiphol is directed from the air traffic control tower. Controllers in the tower instruct aircraft based on what they can see.

The famous Schiphol Centrum tower is 101 metres high. The Polderbaan is so far from the other runways that a new tower had to be built. This is Toren West, which is 59 metres high.

#2 – Abraca-radar
The air traffic controllers cannot see beyond the area around the towers. The rest of the civilian airspace is controlled through radar screens from Schiphol-Oost. Here, air traffic controllers ensure that aircraft maintain enough distance between each other to fly safely.


#3 – 3D Tetris
The radar section is divided into Approach and Area Control. Approach separates aircraft that are landing and taking off within an area of about 50 km around the airport. Beyond that, aircraft are transferred to an air traffic controller at Area Control. Area Control guides air traffic at higher altitudes in the airspace, up to the national borders with our neighbours.


#4 – What’s your vector, Victor?
Air traffic controllers set aircraft directions, speeds and altitudes. They sometimes “steer” more than ten aircraft at a time. The air traffic controllers instruct the pilots. They do this in their own language, called radio telephony. This sounds like English, but contains a lot of aviation jargon. Safety is always the number one priority in these communications. Once everything is running safely, the next thing is to see how the airspace can be used most efficiently.


#5 – Circling
If the sky around the airport is very busy, due to bad weather or delays, aircraft are sometimes kept in a “stack” or “holding” before they can land. Schiphol has three of these areas where aircraft wait by flying in “holding patterns”. Several aircraft can fly the same pattern in the same stack, because each aircraft is at a different altitude. When it’s clear for an aircraft to land, the aircraft in the lowest layer leaves the holding pattern and approaches the runway. The aircraft above it then descend to the next layer.


#6 – Around the clock
Aviation carries on around the clock, so the night skies also need to be watched. An air traffic controller works for a part of the night and sleeps the rest in a bedroom near the operations room or the tower. It is important that controllers are rested and have enough breaks. During the day, air traffic controllers are not allowed to work longer than 2 hours 20 minutes without a break.


Jelte Vlasblom KLM