Air Traffic Control – It’s Less Organized Than You Think


The Federal Aviation Administration (or FAA)
handles sixteen-million flights every year, or approximately 44,000 flights on a daily
basis. And during peak travel times, there’s around
5,000 planes operating in North America’s airspace at any given hour. The responsibility for handling this huge
operation falls on Air Traffic Control (or ATC). You’d think, with stakes this mind-blowingly
high, that ATC would have to work with military precision. They must be well-staffed, highly-educated,
and equipped with the latest technologies. But, as you’ll find out in this surprising
video, they’re actually a lot less organized than you think. First, some background: Air Traffic Control
is an organization run by the FAA, which deals with coordinating the movement of commercial
and private aircraft. They’re the sole point of contact for thousands
of pilots tasked with getting you to your destination safely and on time. According to the FAA, there are 14,695 Air
Traffic Controllers working in the United States. They work out of 518 ATC Towers, 21 Air Traffic
Route Control Centers, and 154 Terminal Radar Approach Control – or TRACON – facilities. So, who are these people, and how do they
manage America’s runways and skies? You won’t actually see Air Traffic Controllers
on the runway itself, guiding planes with orange paddles. That’s the duty of Aircraft Marshallers. Nor will you see them preparing the craft
for flight. That’s the flight crew. ATCs take a more hands-off approach. It’s even possible for an Air Traffic Controller
to never set foot on a plane. What kind of person does it take to be an
Air Traffic Controller? Well, pretty much anyone. There are no formal educational requirements
for becoming an ATC. While it helps, you don’t even technically
need a college degree. Succeeding in this line of work is all about
temperament. To be an Air Traffic Controller, you need
to be young, focused, and have incredible stress-management skills. FAA rules dictate a mandatory retirement age
of fifty-six years old, to make sure the mental faculties and eyesight of ATCs never deteriorate. People over age thirty aren’t even allowed
to apply. Many employees of Air Traffic Control are
former pilots and ex-military, but this is by no means a requirement. Ideal ATCs have a decent grasp of mental arithmetic,
and strong spatial awareness. They’re also expected to pass numerous medical
and psychological examinations from the FAA, as well as completing a several-month training
course followed by years of additional training on the job. The process is hardly streamlined, taking
months or even years in some cases. Every Air Traffic Controller in the United
States is trained at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, situated in Oklahoma City. They take a course known as the FAA Academy,
where they’re trained to take on the various duties of being an ATC. These duties, by the way, are surprisingly
broad. From operating radar and communications equipment,
to making sound judgements, to following flight sequencing protocol. Air Traffic Controllers even have their own
special language, called radiotelephony, which they’re required to learn comprehensively. This process is known to be grueling, with
experienced air traffic controller (and badass-name owner) Vic Vector estimating that 25-40% of
applicants drop out. Still, this is for the best, as letting an
incompetent applicant slip through the cracks can have devastating consequences. More on that later on in the video, when we
discuss the darker sides of ATC. Without Air Traffic Control, your flight wouldn’t
even leave the blacktop. While the plane taxis before take-off, ATCs
in Air Traffic Control Towers observe and direct pilots. They coordinate taxiing planes to avoid collisions
on the runway and sequence the flight for take-off. Once the plane has successfully taken off,
jurisdiction passes from the ATC Towers to Air Traffic Controllers in TRACON facilities. These facilities use radar technology to handle
what is known as “Approach Control.” This means dealing with the flight’s ascent
out of the terminal area, and ensuring planes are safely out of each other’s paths. When the plane ascends out of TRACON airspace,
jurisdiction transfers yet again. This time, to an Air Route Traffic Control
Center, or “Enroute Center.” These twenty-one Enroute Centers direct planes
in the vast majority of US airspace, helping them maintain their course. They also assist the flight in reaching its
final cruising altitude and preventing any mid-air route conflicts with other planes. When the flight makes its final descent towards
the destination, jurisdiction passes back to TRACON for the landing. Finally, once the plane has made a successful
landing, another ATC Tower guides it to the proper terminal. It may appear that the whole process is a
real model of efficiency. Every flight planned out to the minute, and
attended to by thousands of devoted Air Traffic Controllers. While this isn’t technically untrue, it’s
far from the full story. Air Traffic Control is not an exact science,
and the potential room for error on every flight can be catastrophic if not handled
correctly. The following are just some of the insane
scenes unfolding behind the curtain. It might even make you think twice before
booking your next vacation. Firstly, you might imagine that most of the
operations behind Air Traffic Control are automated. It’s a common turn of phrase to say that
“These days, the planes fly themselves.” However, the reality is that Air Traffic Control
relies as much on the training and skills of its employees as the technology they use
on the job. Take, for instance, the Air Traffic Control
Towers that assist planes in taking off and landing. While you might expect these towers to be
massive computer banks processing flight data faster than a human mind can comprehend, in
reality, they largely use a far older method: Looking out the window. The height of these towers gives Air Traffic
Controllers a vantage point from which to observe planes manually on the runway, a low-tech
method particularly common in smaller airports. This human element to Air Traffic Control
Towers are why things as seemingly minor as snow, fog, or even heavy rain can seriously
disrupt your flight time. The FAA has developed a number of technologies
over the last decade to mitigate these issues – such as the Low Visibility Operations/Surface
Movement Guidance and Control System, and the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model
X. Using these systems gives ATC a greater degree
of control over the runway in larger, busier airports. However, all this technology functions mainly
as a back-up to Air Traffic Controllers staring out of the window all day long and making
human judgements. This is part of why spatial awareness is such
a crucial skill for an aspiring ATC officer to have. TRACON and Enroute Centers, on the other hand,
are more technologically reliant by necessity. Air Traffic Controllers working in these facilities
never see the planes directly. Instead, they perform their work with radar
systems. The groups of radar technicians, hunched over,
staring at blips on their flashing screens, are probably what you picture when you even
think of Air Traffic Control. What you might not know is, until very recently,
the technology used for these radars was an antiquated system called Host. Developed over forty years ago, Host utilized
what is known as a “point-to-point, ground-based radar” developed all the way back in the
1970s. To give you some perspective on just how old
this technology was, the GPS you can use to find a missing iPhone is considerably more
advanced than the radars tracking our flights. While the FAA are and have been attempting
to improve this with the roll out of “NextGen” – a modernization of their technological
systems – this has also been messy. Implementation came late, is still ongoing,
and went five-hundred-million dollars over budget. As with any new system, there will also be
a period of uncertainty while engineers work out the kinks and Air Traffic Controllers
adjust to the new demands. Still, this is preferable to using a system
less advanced than the average Xbox. Beyond technological issues, the human component
of Air Traffic Control is even more concerning. You may think cabin pressure is high at thirty-thousand
feet, but that’s nothing compared to the pressure on the ATCs while you’re enjoying
the in-flight movies up above. Air Traffic Controllers often work brutal
hours, with shifts ranging from the crack of dawn to the dead of night, and everything
in between. Air travel never sleeps, and the same can
sadly be said for many of the people responsible for running it. Air Traffic Controllers work weekends and
holidays to get you where you need to be, and it can take a real toll on them. The dangerous consequences of this are clear. For new employees, especially, the workload
can be hard to adjust to. In 2011, the FAA commissioned a study that
found 1 in 5 Air Traffic Controllers had committed a severe operational error due to fatigue. What’s more, the study also found that a
stunning third of ATCs believed fatigue poses a serious risk to the safety of flights. Worse still, outside of hiring legions more
employees, not much can be done about this. The aviation industry is booming, and as more
people fly, the workload on ATCs will only get more intense. The psychological stress put on Air Traffic
Controllers is made worse by the fact that there is no average day on the job. It’s a profession where disaster can strike
at any time, and Air Traffic Controllers need to be flexible in how they approach any given
situation. For example, in the Summer of 2018, unstable
ground employee Richard Russell stole a commercial plane and took it on an hour-long joyride. Air Traffic Control, with the help of Seattle
law enforcement, had to communicate with Russell until his flight’s tragic end – crashing
the plane near the Puget Sound. In late 2018, Air Traffic Controllers in Ireland
dealt with another bizarre situation. They received a number of distressed communications
from pilots in their airspace, seeing unidentified flying objects passing across the sky. Unlike the case of Mr. Russell, nobody was
hurt, but the event caused considerable stress and confusion for all involved. Naturally, many conspiracy theorists claimed
the UFOs were extra-terrestrial in origin. Cooler heads in the scientific community,
however, said the incident was most likely a meteor shower. Air Traffic Control just had to get on with
their work, either way. Aviation doesn’t wait up, aliens or otherwise. Speaking of mysterious flying objects disrupting
the work of Air Traffic Controllers, in late December of 2018, sightings of a commercial
drone brought London’s Gatwick Airport to its knees. A report of drone activity within a kilometre
of the airport caused almost all operations to shut down for thirty-three hours. This caused approximately 140,000 passengers
to experience serious disruptions. The police and even the military were called
in to remedy the situation, but neither got concrete results. In the end, two suspects were arrested and
brought in for questioning, but were released without charges due to insufficient evidence. It’s just another example of how a seemingly
tiny variable can disrupt the complex systems that Air Traffic Control puts in place across
the globe. It goes without saying, considering what we’ve
learned so far, that Air Traffic Control isn’t quite the well-oiled machine we imagined it
was. Why does this matter, though? Plenty of industries have a margin of error. The real difference here is that, when Air
Traffic Control messes up, the results range from expensive to horrific. As mentioned earlier, one of the key roles
of the Air Route Traffic Control Center is to maintain a safe distance between planes
in flight. However, technological or human error can
sometimes prevent this from happening. If all parties concerned are lucky, this can
play out like the 2001 Japan Airlines mid-air incident. Due to errors on the part trainee Air Traffic
Controller Hideki Hachitani and his mentor, Yasuko Momii, Japan Airlines Flight 907 experienced
a terrifying near-miss with Flight 958. Thankfully, disaster was averted by quick-thinking
and evasive action on the part of the pilots. This, however, is not always the case. More often, when mid-air collisions caused
by ATC errors do occur, it’s with far more tragic results. In 1997, a German Air Force plane collided
with a United States Air Force plane off the coast of Namibia, killing thirty-three people. This came as a result of ATC being unaware
of the German plane’s presence in the airspace. A similar issue occurred with a helicopter
and a small private plane over the Hudson River, New Jersey, in 2009. Nine people were killed. And in 2002, two commercial planes collided
over Überlingen in Southern Germany, killing seventy-one. However, tragedies occurring due to ATC errors
are not limited to mid-air collisions. Runway collisions are often equally dangerous. In more fortunate situations, we find examples
like the 2005 Logan Airport runway incursion, or the 2007 San Francisco Airport Runway Incursion. In both cases, Air Traffic Control errors
lead to extremely risky near-misses between two planes that resulted in airport property
damage. But, like the mid-air collisions, people don’t
always get off so easy. In the infamous 1991 Los Angeles Airport Disaster,
an Air Traffic Controller distracted by some abnormalities caused two commercial planes
to collide while landing in Los Angeles International Airport. Thirty-five people were killed in the process. Air Traffic Control have some of the hardest
jobs in the world. Without them, national and international travel
as we experience it today simply wouldn’t be possible. They do their jobs in spite of brutal hours,
antiquated technology, and some of the most stressful situations known to man. Are they the peak of organization? As we’ve learned in this video, absolutely
not. However, the fact that they’re able to operate
this system at this scale – getting 44,000 flights to their destination every single
day – Is an incredible feat of modern engineering. The next time you’re on a flight, eating
a gross in-flight meal and drinking some complementary alcohol, spare a thought for the ATC. If you think flying is stressful already,
then you probably couldn’t do their job, either. Now we’ve got a tough job for you – picking
which episode of The Infographics Show to watch next! Both are great videos that you’re going
to love so it’s a hard decision but we know you can handle it.

100 thoughts on “Air Traffic Control – It’s Less Organized Than You Think

  1. I always wanted to be an ATC, im 19 so i still have a chance to get in but it might be hard tho

  2. As a student pilot, I can say that this video is inaccurate with some facts. This video also makes ATC look bad and that is not true at all in real life. He uses specific examples to make it look like they are bad but the majority of the time they are completely fine

  3. I swear that i had a dream about many airplanes when i was looking in the sky. The thing that two of them was hitting each other.

  4. usaf: hey they a german plane in our way
    atc: well they didnt tell us they were going to fly
    be sure to exchange insurance info

    usaf: too late we dead

  5. Please get your facts right, the two people arrested over the Gatwick incident were not released because of a lack of evidence, they were totally innocent and that was proved beyond all doubt. Additionally, no evidence WHAT-SO-EVER was ever produced that any 'Drones' were ever at the airport despite scores of reporters having cameras trained on the area all thirsty to be the ones who caught it on film.
    The police even eventually admitted that it was possible that no 'Drones' ever existed.

  6. We don’t use the “point to point” radar system anymore as a primary radar system. Funny being because it’s called a primary radar. We use a system that uses a transponder/interrogator “secondary radar” as well as the primary radar with it. Though there are a lot of variables we also have a lot of fail safes for said variables. Read the .65 if you want to know more about that. We also use the Starrs keyboard that helps all these centers/RAPCONs/TRACON/towers to work together. Some aircraft don’t even talk to us like a VFR aircraft (in 95% of airspace). They can request flight following for us to give them traffic alerts but that’s all we can do with those guys. Plus there’s a guy called the watch supervisor that monitors everything said and done on the scope. Anything happens they’ll know.

  7. I keep getting distracted by the awesome animations.. gotta rewind every 2 seconds

  8. Not gonna lie, every time i but i come here to relax cuz ur vids by far the best and help my chill out

  9. Your characterization of ATC is inaccurate, unfair, and partially ignorant. You didn't mention anything about ADS-B, which is a new technology. The mid air accidents you cited were not necessarily controller error, especially the New York accident. The controllers I've experienced, as a pilot, are intelligent, professional, competent, highly organized, and downright super human at times. ATC in the United States is demanding and I'm here to tell you firsthand that they do an amazing job. Another bone I want to pick is about where controllers get their education. Many come from the military having been a controller for Uncle Sam. Others through civilian programs which you didn't really expound on. Universities, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, have ATC as an available major. Even with that they still have to go to Oklahoma City after graduation to complete the FAA's program. I mean your video was incomplete and a bad video. Enough to make me give you a thumbs down and unsubscribe from your channel. Really really disappointed. I used to like your channel. Quality of content has been decreasing and this awful video on ATC was enough. I've heard enough. Click… bye!

  10. The technology use is very antiquated. It wasn't meant to scale this much

  11. As a pilot this video is hyperbole. If you don't understand the dynamics of flight than it may seem less organized.

  12. I have a challenge for you :

    Find a big scary biker looking guy who has a young daughter with him. Walk up to them and punch the little girl right in the face.
    Report back to us her father's reaction.

  13. Tomorrow I will have my first flight. I feel nerveous but this video make me better. Soooo much better

  14. ATC: These planes would sure crash without our guidance.
    Mexican Cartels: why do we need guidance for flying our planes, the sky is big enough for everyone.

  15. If you want a better example of ATC use Heathrow team as an example, they are some of the most highly skilled controllers managing up to 1 flight landing or taking off every 30 seconds.

  16. maybe im gonna cancel my flight now- guess I’ll be having a road trip 😌

  17. As anyone who does any amount of regular flying (either as a passenger or a pilot) in the US will tell you, the FAA is about as inefficient and ineffective as you can imagine. One of the few agencies that is demonstrably even more inefficient and/or ineffective than the FAA is the TSA.

  18. Ummm you make it seam like they have to work whiteout a break

    They get a 30 min break after 2 hours or they are forced to take a brake cuz of stress. How do I know this you may ask well let me tell you I am studying to become one myself.

  19. Air Traffic Control- less organised than you think
    Organised Crime- more organized than you think

  20. My uncle is a ATC, it’s such a stressful job they have a early forced retirement for the employees than regular Gov job

  21. As an Air Traffic Controller, these are not true. They are twisting the truth to make is seem terrible. This is not ok

  22. If I’m a air traffic controller I believe millions of people will die

  23. 6:15
    The girlfriend of our InfoGraphics Challenger wanted to be in this video!

  24. Sees title and thumbnail
    Me: uh…ok so I’m never flying again 😭 🤣

  25. When u thought u hv the worst job.. well watch this vid makes me calm a bit.. am i bad thinking this way?

  26. All that criteria and technology needed but somehow a handful of planes slipped off everyones radar on 911?

  27. IF North Korea opens up and becomes tourists friendly THEN U.S.A. air traffic control is going to have MORE planes to deal with. 👨‍🏫✈😪💬

  28. even airline pilots have errors, for every flight there is an average of 5 errors known or not. and for mid air collisions that's also what TCAS is for, if ATC does not seperate the incursion.

  29. Thanks a lot. I am getting on a plane in just a few days

  30. There is an unbearable amount of ads, so I downvoted the video and 2 other videos from the channel.

  31. My plane was landing on the same runway that a plane was taking off. We narrowly missed crashing and I now know why it happened

  32. If only they had this kind of stringent testing to become a gov official or police officer

  33. ATC Workers: I wish we had less planes flying…

    Coronavirus: Hi. Im here to help.

  34. It’s pretty crazy that flying things to this day use systems that are less advanced than modern gaming consoles, I’ve heard that even systems that NASA uses are less advanced than gaming consoles, why is this when a small mistake can be very costly? 🧐

  35. My job is also quite stressful but I only got 15 minutes of training before I was on the job.

  36. Guys have you heard that the coronvirus has now hit the United States l just coming to tell you

  37. Thanks to "equality" the standards have been lowered – because there were "too many white males".

  38. Nobody:

    Fake: "just watched this before getting on a plane" comments

  39. Don't forget about us tech ops guys… We want everyone safe and controllers happy.

  40. 1:30 I became a Air Traffic Controller for 7 days and this is what happened.

  41. 11:18 Who remembers the deadliest aviation disaster at North Tenerife Airport?

  42. 5:30 I know this joke may of been done to death but does Model X have an plasma arm cannon for self defense?

  43. You don't just tell people this stuff without the government envoled

  44. This can become a series 'It's Less Organized than you think'

    Being a Doctor for instance in an ER Hospital

  45. I mean airplanes are pretty much fully ran by computers so I guess it isn't surprising

  46. Look up crash of the centurie and these crashes look like nothing

  47. People dont realise that ATC is probably the hardest job in aviation souly based on the fact that many of them can be grumy and angry but the second you have an emergency to deal with they can make you feel at home and change life or death situations. On one hand the pilot is trusting someone with his life and ATC has to handle it if they make it down safe or not. It's a bit much to handle on those times

  48. One day A.I will take over this job with almost 24/7 functional with least margin of error

  49. Even if ATC makes a mistake and planes do get too close in midair there is a system called TCAS, Traffic Alert, Collision, Avoidence, System. The two planes will get a Resolution Advisory yellowing one plane to climb and the other descend. That’s exactly what happened in 2002 in Unberling Germany but an air traffic controller told Russian pilots to descend even TCAS told it to climb. At the time Russia had policies that you can listen to the ATC controller’s advice when it came to midair conflict which is exactly what the Russian pilots did. The plane descended as well as the other and collided

  50. If they have a drug addict daughter that died the previous day don't let them in!

  51. Well ya. U just hire more people. There tons of places that don't close at night or holidays. Those people don't work 14 hours a day 6 days a week.

  52. This makes me scared, we already went to the moon and flying still isnt safe? 🤔😮

  53. Need to do some fact checking and include military, DoD, contact controllers. Also "most are former pilots", BS. Very few are.

  54. More like 90% of people selected don’t make it. They are seriously short staffed and working overtime like crazy. Air traffic has increased like 4x in 50 years, but the number of controllers has nearly halved due to budget cuts. They haven’t implemented anything new because their computers are like 20-30 years old and can’t do anything else.

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