Inside the Busy, Stressful World of Air Traffic Control

By Don Brown

For 25 years, I was an air traffic controller in what became the world's busiest facility--Atlanta Center.  Now I'm just another retired guy. Yes, it was a stressful job.  (It's okay, that's the first thing everybody asks.)  The next thing most people want to know is, "What's a Center?"

The full name of the facility is the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. The "Air Route" portion is the important part. If you've ever stepped outside on one of those blue-sky days when airplanes leave those lingering contrails way up high, you've glimpsed my workspace.  Think of an airplane en route from Miami to Chicago at 30,000 feet. Think about where it crosses the route of another airplane en route from New York to New Orleans at 30,000 feet.  Controllers like me made sure they didn't cross that point in the sky at exactly the same moment.

I've never figured out a good mechanism to help people remember that I never worked in the air-traffic control tower you see at the airport.  I worked in a dark room, staring at a radar scope, that was located in a small town you've never heard of, about 20 miles south of the Atlanta airport.  Oh, and that's how we became the busiest facility, by the way.  Atlanta airport became the world's busiest airport.  We (there are about 400 air traffic controllers at the Center) worked all the airplanes in and out of the Atlanta airport for at least 100 miles in all directions.  And Charlotte, North Carolina.  And Birmingham, Alabama.  And a bunch of other airports too.

Confused yet?  I know.  It's just not a world that is well known.  I'll explain some parts of it further, during the week.  But for now, I want to get to a really simple part of the air traffic control world.  It's the part I always want you to think about first, whenever air traffic control comes up as a topic.  Especially when someone tries to convince you--the taxpayer--that we need to buy a new, expensive piece of equipment.  Hold this thought in your mind and I'll continue explaining (after the jump). It's the runways.  It's always the runways.

If you're just the average airline passenger that wants to know why your plane is late, the key to understanding the system is the runways.  If you want to be the next Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), you need to understand that the key to the National Airspace System (NAS) is the runways.  No matter how complicated all this gets (and it is complicated) everything comes back to the runways.

Step outside and look up into the sky.  How many airplanes do you see?  How many airplanes do you think we could fit up there?  The sky is vast and mostly empty.  It is not uncommon to have 5,000 airplanes in the skies over America at any one time.  The sky could easily hold a hundred times more.  The problem is that they want to get back on the ground.  And that takes a runway.

America is blessed with a large number of runways. We have 5,194 paved runways.  That would be great if we used them all because every airplane in the sky at any one moment would have its own runway.  But, as you know, that isn't the way it works.  As every air traffic controller in Atlanta Center knows, they all want to land at Atlanta.  At 5 p.m. on Friday.  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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