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The Air Up There Podcast

E4: How Air Traffic Works

Published: Friday, September 25, 2020

The FAA keeps 5,000 airplanes on average moving safely through the sky every hour. How is this possible? Listen to hear it from our experts.

In this episode, you will learn how the puzzle pieces fit together in a cross-country flight — from takeoff to cruising altitude and back down — and how an orchestra of more than 14,000 air traffic controllers, in unison with pilots and airport personnel, creates a symphony of flights moving safely and efficiently across the nation while faced with a variety of constraints like weather, construction and heavy traffic areas. You'll also hear about the critical role of airway transportation specialists, our Tech Ops personnel, who keep thousands of pieces of critical FAA equipment tuned up for controllers and pilots to use in this complex dance.

Read the show notes on our blog.

E4: How Air Traffic Works

E4: How Air Traffic Works

Transcript

Alison Duquette:
Hi, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Air Up There, a podcast about the exciting world of aviation. I'm Alison Duquette.

John Croft:
And I'm John Croft.

Alison Duquette:
Hi, John. Well, get ready because today we're going with the flow, air traffic flow to be precise. Did you know that each day the FAA handles 45,000 flights? They carry 2.9 million airline passengers as they fly across more than 29 million square miles of our nation's airspace. It's pretty busy up there. I know for one thing that I've sat on a flight, I looked out the window, and thought about how it all works, especially when I look out that window and I see another airplane in the distance.

John Croft:
Yeah, I've been a pilot for more than 40 years, and today's episode taught me a thing or two. All right, okay, maybe a dozen or so things, about how the air traffic control system actually works, and the people who make it tick, who by the way, are pretty awesome.

Alison Duquette:
Okay, before we listen, John, I have a pop quiz for you on some of our aviation terms. Are you ready?

John Croft:
Cool. Let's do it.

Alison Duquette:
Okay, What's a TRACON?

John Croft:
TRACON. Okay, I got it. It stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, right? That's the air traffic facility where controllers handle the communications and surveillance of traffic departing from or arriving to an airport. It's one leg of the three-legged stool for air traffic — towers, TRACONs and air route traffic control centers. And, they are the facilities and controllers that handle the cruise portion of a flight.

Alison Duquette:
Okay, so next question. What is VFR, and what's IFR?

John Croft:
This is an easy one for me as a pilot. VFR or Visual Flight Rules, means pilots may or may not have to talk to air traffic control, depending on where they're flying, of course. VFRs typically the choice for light general aviation pilots like myself, especially those who fly in good weather conditions, and that's the way I fly most of the time. Airlines on the other hand are almost always operating on IFR or Instrument Flight Rules flight plans. For IFR, the pilot or the airline files the flight plans, which are entered into the FAA's air traffic control automation systems.

An IFR flight has rigorous communications, navigations and surveillance requirements that, when combined with Air Traffic Control (or ATC) procedures, and professional pilots, controllers and dispatchers, make sure aircraft are safely separated and on track to reach their destinations on time, even when bad weather or other issues crop up.

Speaking of separation, you're going to hear more about that in this episode, but I just want to point out that ATC also has rigorous requirements for how far aircraft must be kept apart to prevent any wake turbulence encounters or other close calls.

Alison Duquette:
Thanks, John. Well, you passed. For our show today, our reporters talk to the Air Traffic Manager at the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center. That's the facility that manages the overall traffic flow of our National Airspace System. We'd like to call it the NAS. We also talked to an enroute air traffic control center controller and an FAA technical operations manager, also known as TechOps. TechOps are the people who keep all the communications, navigation and surveillance systems on the ground operating at peak performance. It's no desk job, that's for sure.

John Croft:
Okay, let's go. First up, our executive producer Matt Borten interviewed Jennifer Ross, the Air Traffic Manager at the FAA Command Center in Virginia, and he talked to her about how the FAA keeps flights safe and moving 24/7, 365.

Matt Borten:
When you head to the airport to take a flight, say from the D.C. area to San Francisco, what goes on behind the scenes to make sure that flight moves safely and efficiently is a lot like a complex dance. It involves intricate coordination between an array of highly skilled people at the FAA, the airlines and the airports. They all collaborate to ensure it comes off without a hitch, which once you hear what's involved, you might wonder how it works so smoothly most of the time.

From the time you as a passenger board the plane, your flight is already being handled by air traffic controllers in the airline's dispatch office. What most people don't realize is that while your flight is still at the departure gate, there's all sorts of planning going on that dictates when the plane pushes back and begins its taxi route out to the runway. Of course, changes in weather even hundreds of miles away, can affect your flights.

Jennifer Ross, the Air Traffic Manager at the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center has been with the FAA for more than 17 years. She worked at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center for 11 years and is a commercial multi-engine instrument-rated pilot with a Bachelor of Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She explains the process.

Sound effects: ATC and pilot chatter

Jennifer Ross:
There is a ton of people that ensure that safety of flight from beginning to end. I would even say, as you're walking on to the aircraft, there's a ton of information that's being exchanged both between your pilot and their dispatcher, and their dispatcher and the tower, and then the tower, to get times of releases, because sometimes San Francisco may have a ground delay program going on, which means you have to meet a time that you depart so that you'll meet a time that you arrive correctly. But once all that is worked out, and you start to push back from the gate and taxi out, which takes time and you have the taxi time that you need to factor in, that pilot needs to factor in to his planning, and you get your clearance to take off from the tower, which is my favorite part — I love right when you lift off and that's just such a great feeling.

But really, there's only about five miles around the tower, generally, that you're actually talking to a tower controller. And then they will do a radar handoff, which is flashing from one sector to the other that has your flight number on it, to the TRACON — the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility, and they generally, depending on the TRACON, may have anywhere from 20 to 40 miles away from the airport up to about anywhere from 15,000 to 23,000 feet.

You'll be talking to that radar controller, and then he'll start the same handoff process to an Air Route Traffic Control Center. For D.C., for the flight from D.C., you'll go to Washington Center, and there are 21 control centers across the country, and they take up large chunks, generally about 500 square miles. You talk to them until you get handed off to the next control center and then all the way across until you get all the way towards your destination.

For San Francisco, you might start your descent just past Colorado a little bit. You'll go down a little bit and then you'll get back into that 20 to 40 mile range and go to the next TRACON, which for San Francisco is North Cal TRACON. You'll talk to a radar controller there, in the same handoff of that radar display of your flight. Then they'll hand you off to the tower to get you in line for what you need for your arrival and your landing there, until you get to your next gate, which is another piece that the airlines have to do to really manage their gate control, because they only have so many gates that they "own" at their airport.

Managing who's arriving and who's departing through their systems are as intricate as our systems are too. So, making sure that you have a gate to arrive to.

Sound effects: ATC and pilot chatter

Jennifer Ross:
There can also be other constraints that really have nothing to do with your departure airport or your arrival airport. There could be massive thunderstorms in Kansas City, and now a route has closed that you normally would have gone on that flight. Now, the command center needs to come up with a new route for you, which then has to be processed through Washington Center, where you're departing from, and the dispatcher of that particular aircraft, because it's a joint decision to accept that route or not. Sometimes you get delayed even afterward, and you're sitting on the aircraft going, "Well, there's no weather here, there's no weather where I'm landing, why am I stopped for weather?"

Matt Borten:
Air routes that planes follow on the paths across the sky have gotten more refined since the old days of having to rely on land-based beacons that they'd fly over on their journeys. When weather situations arise that force planes to deviate from these routes, it can make all the pre-planning go out the window. But even with these exceptions to the normal flows, the Command Center has playbooks they use to deal with changes. Jennifer explains more.

Jennifer Ross:
It's gotten a lot better, I would say, from the inception of flight, when we started doing these VORs, which are like beacons on the ground that were ground-based. Planes had to fly basically over each points on the ground, and that may be a zigzag back and forth. With the invention or implementation of GPS, which we all have now in all our cars and everything, our phones, that's allowed us to cut some of these routes off and make them shorter and more efficient. But they're still managed routes, especially for the large flows. Like you're talking about the major 30s plus a few more.

So, you have these city pairs, that's how we deem them, that if you're going to go to San Francisco from DCA, you have a choice of maybe these four routes that we really need you on. And especially in the D.C. and New York areas, there's definite departure airways and paths, and there's definite arrival paths. So it really causes a problem if we have close-in weather there and now you're not only merging in with another lane of traffic, but you may be merging into a head-on lane of traffic.

Matt Borten:
But because the skies offer us a three-dimensional space to play with, the FAA uses vertical separation of thousands of feet, and distance between planes, usually several miles, that we refer to as separation to keep a safe bubble of space around every plane.

Jennifer Ross:
For the centers, the bigger centers, they have a five mile separation bubble, as well as the thousand feet that everybody has. That's really to do with the speed that they're traveling at, at those higher altitudes. And then at the TRACON levels and the tower levels, they can use three miles separation or even visual separation as they get in closer and below 18,000 feet.

But you still can only land so many aircraft on so much pavement. Especially when you start to talk about bigger aircraft and smaller aircraft — you don't want to be in a tiny little plane bumping behind this giant 757. There's extra space that we allow for that. When we have to have that space at the tower, or pavement at the airport, that starts to back up. If the tower needs an extra five miles because they have a crosswind or they have to do some extra spacing for any kind of construction or anything, that backs up to the TRACON, who then has to pass that to the center and may become like 20 miles-in-trail. That's really where you start to see those flows. You go, okay. Even on normal flows, we have some merge points because everybody's trying to go to the same place, and a lot of times at the same time.

Matt Borten:
So, how do we create the separation or slow the flows needed sometimes when things begin backing up? Jennifer explains.

Jennifer Ross:
If we have a ground delay program for San Francisco due to some low ceilings and weather, obviously, that's a really long flight. If our forecast says that X amount of time we're expecting that ceiling to lift, and now we can take more aircraft or that arrival rate can go up, and so we started releasing planes off New York and D.C. and Atlanta and Chicago. And then as they get closer, that weather did not dissipate as we expected, then you start to see there's just too many coming because we were expecting to be able to take the higher level.

Then they start to hold, to try to peel them off one at a time, to get them in the right arrival rate. That could back up into previous centers. It generally doesn't back up to the middle of the country in holding, but you could be holding as you're in closer, basically waiting your turn to get into the arrival path.

Sometimes they will ask you to slow aircraft to a certain speed. As a controller, you may S-turn as you do that, so that you can get the right spacing, especially if you see another San Francisco that's going to be tied. Or a lot of times they'll just say okay, we're going to just go to this point, and you'll just do the racetracks at that point.

Matt Borten:
And by racetracks, Jennifer's referring to having a plane fly in large circles in the sky at a specific altitude to delay that flight for a few minutes. Once there is enough space in the line of traffic heading to the destination airport, that plane straightens out and heads back onto its route towards its destination.

Sound effects: ATC and pilot chatter

Matt Borten:
So, that's how the process works. Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding and appreciation of all that goes into making sure your flight gets you where you need to go as safely and efficiently as possible.

Sound effects: ATC and pilot chatter

Alison Duquette:
Wow, I just learned a few things. If you're listening and you want to learn more, you can go to faa.gov and click on Air Traffic to check out our Flight Across America animation and our Air Traffic By the Numbers.

John Croft:
Yeah, some great material there. Next, we're going to hear some more from Jennifer Ross and get into more of the behind the scenes details at the Command Center, where the FAA and our aviation stakeholders manage the big picture of the traffic flow through our airspace.

Alison Duquette:
And commercial space launches, many of which the FAA license, and they're using the airspace for launches and re-entries. The Command Center has a really important role during these exciting aerospace activities. So, let's hear more from Matt and Jen.

Jennifer Ross:
We actually start planning for a day at the Command Center probably two or three days in advance. We're getting, are they going to do any runway construction, are they going to have the space launch, is a military exercise going on, is there the Masters going on and we're going to have special routes for that? All of that is put into what we call a PERTI plan, which is Plan, Execute, Review, Train and Improve is the acronym for that, and it's really the advanced planning of that, and then when you get to the day of the execution, you're refining that.

It's dealing with a lot of other entities. You're dealing with all the needs of the stakeholders. When I say stakeholders, I mean not just American, Delta, United, but the military, the space operations, NBAA. NBAA is National Business Aviation Association. There's also other entities like A4A, which is Airlines for America, and they're here housed in our facility. You have to find a way to integrate all of these things into normal constraints, like we have a weather system or we have a tornado or we have TFR or military exercise or any of those things that might happen in any single day. TFR is actually a temporary flight restriction. That's like a bubble around Disney World, or the Super Bowl, or where the president's at or anything like that.

And our other stakeholders are really our facilities. We have to make sure that flights that they have are keeping them in a safe environment to be able to work those air traffic. If it means structuring those routes so that they can work them more smoothly, then that's what we need to do for them. By the time we get all this in place, so that you've done all this planning for so long, it should be, as we get closer to it, just a refinement of that. Then you start thinking about cargo ops on the night shift, and then you start thinking about the next day. It's always this continuous moving of what's up next, what's up next, and we're always planning 18, 24, 36 hours out type thing.

The same thing with weather, if you have weather at one place, or runway construction at one place, you may take a delay in San Francisco, and you're thinking there's no weather here, there's no construction here, but it's affecting you because you're trying to get to JFK, or you're connecting flight is going through JFK to pick you up in Denver or Chicago. You might see that delay on the front end from where you're departing from out of your tower, and there's really nothing going on at your tower and then you go to the TRACON, work through them, and then you go to these big centers who then have to fit you into these flows with every other person that's coming in from every other direction.

Matt Borten:
You had talked about the overall planning, sort of future view. Generally speaking, you said you try to be three days out. You've got what you know, three days in advance, and then that unfortunate thing where suddenly we're socked with an enormous thunderstorm system throughout the middle of the country, and pretty much every transcontinental flight has to be rerouted around it. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Jennifer Ross:
A good example we just actually had, and for the folks that live in Texas, my heart goes out to them, because they had a really rough summer with thunderstorms the last couple of years, especially around Fort Worth. It's easier to predict the frontal systems that we get, say in the winter, because they just march across the country, and then they hit Chicago, and then they hit the East Coast, and then they march off.

But in the summertime with all the heat, you get a lot of air mass systems and they sort of pop up and go away. Being from Florida, that's normal to me, I've seen it rain in my front yard in Florida and not my backyard. It's very different. It's really harder for our weather folks to predict those. When we get that in Texas, we know there's going to be weather there, you don't know how intense it's going to be. It ended up really just sucking in the whole airport for about two and a half hours. That means your plane that was supposed to go to Fort Worth is now going to San Antonio.

Matt Borten:
And so in a situation like that, if you had to reroute to San Antonio, instead of Fort Worth, would the goal then eventually be to get that flight up in the air again and back to Fort Worth that same day?

Jennifer Ross:
Yeah. Those flights have priority. Unfortunately, that night, that weather lasted so long, and it really was on the south side of Fort Worth. We ended up having to route those San Antonio and Austin flights completely, basically through Oklahoma to get back to Fort Worth. Some had the fuel for it, and they could do it and some didn't and timed out. There's also other things that airlines do, because they don't want to lose that revenue either, and they don't want to strand their passengers other places.

Matt Borten:
If there's one thing that you could share with the flying public about your work and what we do at the FAA, sort of a grand thought about what we do, what would it be?

Jennifer Ross:
As far as the air traffic control side and the Command Center side, I wish that … My grandmother thinks I hold the sticks on the tarmac, and I've never corrected her. The controllers when the rubber meets the road, there is nothing a controller or anybody at any of these facilities will not do to ensure safe flight. They will stay, they will work extra, they will make sure that when everything's going bad, they're going to be there to make sure that you got to your flight.

I don't think that's really … You think about the pilot when you fly and you think about what they're doing. But, I've seen amazing people do amazing things, above and beyond their scope of work.

Matt Borten:
What would you say that most people don't even realize about what we're doing to keep the NAS functioning?

Jennifer Ross:
I think the biggest thing is — you don't just plug in and start talking to planes. You have years of training and scenarios and refresher training, and then you have all these folks that are talking to planes that have their assistants, that's an extra set of eyes. They have their supervisor who's telling them, "You've got to slow this one down, because this is a critical flight that has a heart on it, or something like that, with LifeGuard."

I think the pieces in place to make it all happen, and that really opened my eyes here at the Command Center. Here it's: "Where's the priority? Do I have this TFR that I have to keep the flights out of, is there hazard areas for launches?" But, let's say there's a launch going off on the cape, they have really super smart engineers who calculate the path of that projectile, whatever it is. Then they also calculate what ifs. What if there's a problem? Where are we going to have debris. We're clearing out aircraft from any of those hazard areas, and they've gotten so good at that. I used to work those when we had the shuttle. There were just huge areas that they just shut down for hours. Now, it's maybe 20 minutes after the launch, we're able to release that airspace and get normal air traffic going again. It's really gotten great.

Matt Borten:
Specifically, the Command Center's role in dealing with say, a weather issue that crops up or some other less than usual situation that crops up that couldn't be planned for, who are you coordinating with?

Jennifer Ross:
Probably the best example of that is when something unplanned goes wrong. Like if we do have a frequency outage or a radar outage, or we had the Chicago fire not too long ago, that shut down an entire 500 square miles of airspace. The coordination pieces of that and to react quickly, so that you're moving aircraft out of the way of any kind of hazard, while still maintaining some efficiency to get folks where they need to go, and not strand everybody everywhere. It really is coordination with the airlines, it's coordination with the facilities, it's having that one centralized place where we can message up to our leadership. That really brings in all the elements.

Matt Borten:
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the work that the Command Center performs?

Jennifer Ross:
Probably, the most challenging is getting all the stakeholders — when I say all the stakeholders, I mean, all those facilities, all those industry partners — looking at the same thing. Because a lot of times, individually, they have their own interests at heart. FedEx really wants the flights to get into Memphis, or Washington Center wants to just clear out their airspace because they've got a lot of deviations with weather, and they don't always see the bigger picture.

That's really our job, is to explain and convince them that what we need them to do is really what's best, and what will help them, and thin out what they need. But we need them to take a little bit so that we can get these other things moving also.

Matt Borten:
All right. Well, thank you so much.

Jennifer Ross:
All right.

John Croft:
Now, that's somebody who's really good at what they do, and obviously loves her job. What a combination. I particularly liked the discussion on thunderstorms in Texas and how the Command Center plots a strategy from afar to minimize disruptions. It's like they say, Alison, everything's bigger in Texas.

Alison Duquette:
Well, John, I'll tell you what's big — our latest safety tip.

Announcer:
Know how to pack hazardous materials for air travel. When you fly, you play an important role in keeping everyone else onboard safe. What you bring with you matters. Dangerous goods, also known as hazardous materials, can contribute to catastrophic incidents when things go wrong. That's one reason why there are rules around what you pack. Some common toiletry and electronics items you pack in your baggage are actually dangerous goods, like camera batteries, or an aerosol can of hairspray. Not sure what's cleared for takeoff, go to faa.gov/go/packsafe and check the chart. Remember, when in doubt, leave it out.

John Croft:
In our next segment, our field reporter and producer, Dominique Gebru, talked to Tracey Salazar, Manager of Technical Operations, aka TechOps, in Denver. TechOps makes sure the systems we use for air traffic control all work correctly.

Tracey Salazar:
My current position is, I'm the Denver District Manager. Denver District is the whole state of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. We have over 3800 pieces of equipment that we take care of on a day-to-day basis. There's about 250 employees in Denver District. Every one of us supports those facilities and the services that we provide to both the flying public and to air traffic.

I've got some really unique geography. I've got sites as high as 12,000 feet in Denver District. During the wintertime when we have outages and things that we have to respond to, oftentimes we're chartering helicopters, or we're in SnoCats to get to them.

Dominique Gebru:
How does TechOps ensure that the flow of aircraft in the NAS moves efficiently and safely?

Tracey Salazar:
Okay. That's a really big question. There is 77,000 pieces of equipment in the NAS that TechOps maintains and supports. And that support can start from the technician level, where they're doing daily maintenance, weekly maintenance to keep the systems up and operational. Our reliability of our services is well over 99% from a national perspective. That's a really good record when you talk about the services that we provide, being there and available for air traffic and for the pilots whenever they need it.

But there's other levels of TechOps that are doing more of the monitoring, of the performance of our systems, knowing when to do a modification, knowing when our systems are antiquated, and they have to be replaced. When you've got 77,000 pieces of equipment, there's some of those that are more important than others. They feed higher impact facilities. We have contingencies and backups to backups, so that if you lose one thing, you haven't lost critical services. We've got engine generators in case power is lost.

Some of those remote sites that I talked about that are on the mountain tops may take us, especially in the wintertime, it may take us a while to get to those locations. Chartering helicopters, they may not be available. The weather conditions may not support a helicopter getting into those sites. Well, we're in hurricane season right now, and when you talk about technicians going in after hurricanes made landfall, you can encounter all sorts of things like snakes, downed power lines. Our folks have got PPE, and they've got safety training to be able to be aware of what they're going into, to mitigate those safety risks to our people, because we don't ever want to send our folks into an area that's going to be a risk.

We have technicians that maintain very high voltage systems. They have a lot of safety training that they have to go to be able to maintain and get around and work around high power. One mistake and it can be very deadly.

Dominique Gebru:
Yeah, that sounds really challenging to be aware of the risks that exist as you're trying to do your job. As someone who has flown before, I definitely didn't realize everything that went into actually making that happen. It really is so much more than just an air traffic controller saying, "Okay, you can take off now."

Tracey Salazar:
Yeah, but I have a great team. The TechOps motto is, "We are TechOps." Which just really stands for the innovative, dedicated workforce that we have, and all that they do every day.

Alison Duquette:
I always like to say that TechOps is the quote, "power behind air traffic control." But there's so much dedication innovation behind what they do every day. That's really impressive.

John Croft:
Yeah, truly unsung heroes of the air traffic control world. Before we check out the next interview, though, let's lean into a quick piece about aviation trivia.

Announcer:
How many hours and minutes is the world's longest commercial flight? The world's longest commercial flight, Qantas flight 7879 traveled slightly more than 10,000 miles in 19 hours and 16 minutes from New York to Sydney, Australia. There were only 50 passengers and crew onboard. The flight was used to test the viability of regular ultra-long-haul flights. It landed on October 20th, 2019.

Alison Duquette:
Well, John, up next is Chris Keyes. He's an air traffic controller at Washington Center, which is actually located in Leesburg, Virginia. He's really going to get into the details about how he hands off airplanes, the intricacies of the process and what it's like when he gets a difficult or stressful situation and why he thinks he has such a cool job.

Matt Borten:
Chris, let's just start off, tell me a little bit about as an air traffic controller, what are the core duties that you guys do in helping a flight move safely from point A to point B?

Chris Keyes:
Well, obviously, in air traffic control, the primary focus is safety, and then of course, to keep things orderly, and expeditious are the second duties there. It's interesting because as a center controller, we don't originate a lot of the flights that we handle. They're originated with the tower, or they're coming from overseas or somewhere outside of the National Airspace System, and they're just overflying or they're inbound to one of our facilities.

We tend to just work a lot of overflights and a lot of sequencing for arrivals, et cetera. We do take the departures from the metro airports, et cetera. Basically just mesh everything together into a nice orderly flow, working with the tunnels in the sky concepts that the routes are built around, and then adjusting when things don't always go exactly to plan. When weather moves through or some special use airspace becomes active and the flows have to change, we just have to adjust and work it out and make the most out of it. But always maintaining focusing on safety and keeping it orderly and manageable for all people involved, as well as expeditious for users.

Matt Borten:
If you could, with words, paint a picture for our listeners — I'm not sure they understand that the air seems so open and so vast that oh, don't planes just go where they want to go? But no, we do have designated routes that they have to follow.

Chris Keyes:
It's more like a bowl of spaghetti, because they're going in a lot of different directions and they wind around each other and snake through each other. There's a lot of layers and you just have to keep hitting these points, different altitudes at different points. It's built that way for routine and structure. Because with routine and structure, we can work our best, we can be the most efficient. That's why the tunnels in the sky piece works. Of course, that becomes a bit more of a free-for-all, or certainly more free-form when weather moves through and the aircraft can't stay on those routes.

Matt Borten:
As an air traffic controller, you are visualizing this in your mind. I think one of the other things that most of our listeners don't realize is what you guys actually see on your radar scope. Describe to them what a data block is, and all that, and then how you guys have to extrapolate that information and create a 3D picture in your mind.

Chris Keyes:
That's exactly what we have to do. Yes, we are looking at a two-dimensional image on a monitor. There's a map created and presented on the monitor of the airspace that you're working and the important features that you need to know about that. But then each aircraft that transitions through your airspace has a data block. Each data block gives you information about that flight, their call sign, the altitude that they're assigned, and the altitude that they're actually currently at, and as well as some computer identification information and some speed information.

We have to look at that — look at that map, look at this information, each of these aircraft and their data block — and take this 2D presentation and create a 3D mental model to build understanding of what we're working and to keep having a plan for the next 60 seconds, five minutes, 10 minutes, how's this all going to work out and making sure that we're keeping things orderly and safe and expeditious, but doing so, that is the process. That's a good way to put it, it's a 2D presentation that you have to create a 3D model in your mind to truly understand and build a plan for.

Matt Borten:
Talk to me about the process of how is that plane handed off to you, and how you hand it off to the next guy or gal?

Chris Keyes:
In the example that you give, the tower departs the aircraft from the runway, the approach controller identifies the aircraft through radar identification, and then that generates the data block that we use to show control of the aircraft and present us with the information that we need. That data block is constantly following the radar target that's captured by our radar systems.

As the approach controller works that aircraft higher or closer towards the lateral boundaries of their airspace, they need to pass that off to the next controller who's responsible for the airspace that he's headed toward.

Through a series of simple key entries, they can identify what facility and what sector they want to flash that aircraft to. When I say flash, that's the term we use when you put an aircraft's data block into a handoff status. There's a feature of the data block that actually begins to blink. As I'm sitting there working, and I'm focusing on my airspace that I'm responsible for, I'll see aircraft, typically from the periphery inbound towards my area of jurisdiction, and I'll see them flashing, and that's my indication that something's headed my way, that someone wants me to accept radar identification and ultimately communication and control of that aircraft. So, I have to respond to that by clicking on the target with a mouse or through a keyboard entry to accept that hand off.

That means that I recognize I have the data and that information, I know who they are, and I know what they're doing. Then from there, I have control upon crossing the lateral boundary into my airspace. Then I'll do the same thing on the other side. I'll continue to work that aircraft and I'll climb them up if they're a departure, I'll descend them if they're an arrival. If they're level flight, overflight, we'll just say hello, and make sure we have communications, any traffic calls that are necessary as they transition through the airspace.

Then as they get to the other side of my airspace, I do the exact same thing, through a series of keystrokes, I'll direct that data block to flash at the next controller who should take that aircraft and the cycle continues. We're the third entity. In that mental model, it is kind of 1, 2, 3, 2, 1. From tower to TRACON to a center, back to a TRACON, back to the tower.

But the center controllers actually control a lot of airspace all the way down to the ground, and including the airports. For instance, there's a lot of small airports that don't have a tower. In those examples, the pilots at those airports will call the Flight Service Station to request their clearance. They'll call us at the sector, and we'll give them the clearance information as well as instructions for the aircraft to depart and then we'll protect that airspace around the airport until that pilot can physically depart. They'll call us on the radio, and we'll use something like IDENT or the IDENT feature of their squawk or have them change their squawk in order to radar ID them.

Each aircraft has equipment on board that generates what we call the squawk code. It's a beacon. It's four digits. The system that controls the NAS — the National Airspace System — generates an assigned four-digit code for that specific aircraft, and for that specific flight plan. When they enter that code into their beacon system, our radar equipment recognizes it, and that way, it can correlate that radar return with that specific aircraft. That's the purpose of the beacon.

Then, once they're radar contact, then now they're in the system. We have a radar return that's being tracked by a data block, and they are just the same as every other aircraft, and we'll handle them the same way, get them up to their requested altitude and on course, and blend them into the flow of other traffic. Vice versa for their rivals. We aren't always the third part of the equation, we're sometimes the only part of the equation.

Matt Borten:
Great, thanks for clarifying that. Now, let's talk about that abnormal situation. We've talked about how you guys are trying to create, obviously, safety first, and then efficiencies with the paths and all that. But say, for instance, it's not perfect, it's not a clear day and all that. If there's weather, and it's affecting routes, and you're having to squeeze people into a smaller pipe and stack people vertically or whatever to deal with space, how do you deal with that? Then if they need to be in a holding pattern in your zone, what are those two scenarios kind of like?

Chris Keyes:
The first scenario that you asked about is weather is beginning to impact your sector. Your first plan of action is to allow the aircraft to deviate slightly off of their assigned course, just to avoid that weather cell. You give them the weather information, they say, "Well, we'd like to deviate five or 10 miles left or right, of course."

You give them that approval, and it's all pretty good, and it works as long as they're staying within your sector, because you have that airspace for your control. Where it starts to get more complicated is when that deviation to avoid that weather, the aircraft wants to enter another sector's airspace. You can coordinate with them, and they can allow you to do that, and that's fine. But, if we're talking about a long southbound flow of aircraft, it can be every 10 miles, there's aircraft just 10 miles-in-trail of each other, all of them deviating.

At some point, they're going to deviate far enough that they're going to impact the flow of that controller. They have to come up with a new plan, that can be any number of things. Maybe instead of going around the east side of that weather cell that's moving eastbound, let's go around the west side of it. Maybe we'll stay to the east side, but that flow that's affected, that's being pushed into, well, they need to move east as well. It starts to domino, each move starts to move everybody a little farther east, and that's when the pipe really gets squeezed because there's only so far you can go in the east before you run out of land and airspace. At that point, yeah, you do start to get a little bit more creative. They'll reduce the flow of traffic, that's the first thing they try to do is reduce the flow of traffic to make what you do have more manageable.

And, ultimately, if you have to, and there's no safe alternative, you can put aircraft into hold and wait for the weather to move or for an opportunity to get around the weather in a safer area. Holding, it's one of the last resorts because we like to keep the aircraft moving, and certainly for purposes of being efficient. But if there's no safe route for them to take, we issue a series of instructions, specify a specific point in space where they can safely enter into a holding pattern at a specific altitude. We'll protect for that, and then we'll communicate with them updates on the feasibility of alternatives as we go along.

If for some reason the weather gets worse, the pilots will often come up with an alternative, and they'll say, "I think our company would prefer we go to this airport instead now to get safely on the ground, refuel or whatever, and work it out from there." That's typically how the weather impacts us in that scenario.

Matt Borten:
In that holding pattern, once you've given them a point in the sky and an altitude to stay in, are they literally just doing a huge loop, just a big oval basically?

Chris Keyes:
Yeah, it's basically just an oval track, and they'll stay in it. The first turn in there is a little bigger than the subsequent turns as they get their speed adjusted to optimal speed for the holding pattern. But then once they get in there, it's fairly predictable what they're going to do.

Matt Borten:
If due to ground stops and various other things, you're having to perhaps slow traffic to get them into that funnel of a flow for landing, for instance, what are some of the other slowdown techniques? Is it literally just, "Hey, guys throttle back a little bit?" Or is it some S-turns? What kind of things do you tell them to do?"

Chris Keyes:
Yeah, it can be either. We don't do as much of what they call miles-in-trail anymore. If you want to slow down the arrival rate into an airport, you could specify all those aircraft inbound on this route need to be 20 miles-in-trail. To achieve that can be complicated, because you're getting aircraft from multiple different directions. So, you have to really have that picture in your head how you're going to lay this out so that they all fall in line, 20 miles-in-trail. Sometimes they don't. So, yes, you do end up using something we call S-turns. That's where you'll turn somebody out maybe 45 degrees to the right, maybe 60 degrees back to the left, and then 45 degrees back to the right, and then get them back on course at some point. The other thing, of course, is speed control, ask them to reduce their speed, and that'll help reduce the length of the off-course vector as well.

More than miles-in-trail now, a lot of the airports that are impacted and require to slow down use a function called time-based metering. We're not really looking at specifically miles-in-trail for those aircraft. Those aircraft have a piece of data displayed on the data block that indicates essentially whether they're right on time, or whether they're a little early, or whether they're a little late. If they're a little early, we can slow them down just through speed control, or maybe we just give them a little turn off course, and then turn it back to just add a couple miles in to take up that time. Maybe they're a little bit late, and we can ask them to increase their speed. They're usually happy to do that, they'll pick it right up and make up that difference. But the metering has definitely changed how we look at slowing down the traffic and managing the flow, so you don't end up with the choke-point at the arrival controller, with too many aircraft and not enough airspace.

Controllers — we constantly build these, what I like to call, this mental toolbox of the tools that we use to help build space and how to achieve that and how to achieve our sequence. As we're working, and we're getting lots of planes, and we're having to do lots of turning and speed control to get the sequence set to get everything lined up, we recognize when we're running out of tools. At a certain point, if you completely run out of tools, the last resort is to let the sector know, who's feeding you the aircraft, to stop, hold your aircraft until I can clear out this jam. That's really a last resort. Thankfully, due to the new features, such as the time-based metering, we see a lot less of that.

Matt Borten:
Chris, what is it about this job that you think is really cool, and what makes being in the aviation industry cool, and specifically as an air traffic controller, what's neat about this job?

Chris Keyes:
For me, the best thing that I think is neat is just that it's fun. It's a fun, engaging employment. You get to go in and each day you sit down at the scope, it may be the same flows, but it's different aircraft and different situation, and it's just always something a little bit different that you can apply yourself to, try to be better at, try to be more efficient, try to really refine your communications, and you get challenged each day to do that.

You get to step back at the end of it and go, "Wow, I really was able to do that better today than I was the day before." It's just fun. It's why when controllers get off position, they tend to wander out in the hallway, and they'll find another controller and they'll talk about it the same way we would talk about the football game we just watched the night before, and how that played out.

In that way, it is very engaging, and it's rewarding to work through it, especially when it gets challenging. Man, you just step back and you think, "Wow, that escalated quickly." Next thing you know you're in the mix, and then you work through it, and you can step back and go, "Wow, I was able to get through that, and that felt good." That for me, that challenge, is a lot of fun.

I think people from the outside looking in feel that the core of this job is the ability to understand and plan for separation and conflict in the air. But I think even more fundamental to what we do is communication. This is a communications job first, because it doesn't matter how good your plan is if you can't communicate it. There's a lot of barriers to communication. That's why we have phraseology, which is a very specific way that we say things so that pilots can predict, they don't have to interpret anything. Sometimes it can just be volume of communications, there's so much to say and just not enough time. Being concise and clear and speaking with almost a cadence to your voice so that pilots can predict when they have an opportunity to speak up and say something that they need to say without interrupting your control instructions, it's so key to what we do. This is a communications job first, and then it's a separation and control thing second, I believe.

Matt Borten:
How often on a given day, after a hectic situation do you go, 'Phew!' Not necessarily you saved lives, but you kept people safe, you got them home, or you got them to their destination for a vacation or whatever. How often does that play through your mind?

Chris Keyes:
Once you have been trained and you've seasoned, the job can become a bit more routine. You only experience that feeling after pretty hectic situations. But I think it's important to really always remind yourself that that's what you're doing. Because it's so incredibly important to always remember that we're responsible for that safety, we're responsible to give the information that those pilots need. You never know when a very routine situation becomes something very extraordinary just like that. In just a blink of an eye, it becomes something extraordinary. You always have to treat your routine work as if it's going to be extraordinary in five seconds.

Matt Borten:
Would you say that the safety culture and the safety mantra that's all a part of us at the FAA, is that baked into that muscle memory?

Chris Keyes:
Well, I think that we all certainly identify as aviation safety professionals, right? That's clearly our identity, and I think we're always aware of that. And we always do our best to make sure that we're performing our duties to the best of our abilities at all times, to ensure that we're living up to that expectation, to that standard that's been set for us. That's incredibly important.

Matt Borten:
Thank you, Chris. Really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this today. I learned a lot and I've been doing this for a decade now, from my side, talking to you guys and learning, trying to tell your story and trying to tell it in a way that makes people understand taking something very complex and trying to make it understandable. This is going to make for a really compelling story for our listeners. So, thanks.

Chris Keyes:
Thanks, Matt. I really appreciate it. It was fun.

John Croft:
That's great information, Alison. I'm one of those guys who will often ask for a pop up IFR clearance when weather is iffy. I know now that it can lead to more pressure for controllers, so it's something I'm going to think about more when I prepare for a flight.

Alison Duquette:
Well, there's that and there's also preparing for life. For the listeners, if you think that Jen, Tracey, or Chris have cool jobs, you may want to consider a job in aviation, or even with the FAA. Follow us on social media for job announcements and go to our website, faa.gov to learn what it takes to qualify to become an air traffic controller or Tech Ops specialist.

John Croft:
Well, that's all for today's episode, and I want to thank everyone out there in the ATC world who helped us out and keeps us safe, and all the FAA crew put this adventure together.

Alison Duquette:
That's our show. We hope you enjoyed it and learned something new. The Air Up There is a podcast brought to you by the Federal Aviation Administration. You can follow the FAA on Twitter and YouTube @FAAnews, on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn @faa. Thanks for listening. Fly smart and fly safe.

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