From the Air Traffic Controller's Perspective

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
This is not the controller I spoke with last week at Denver’s Centennial airport, because this man is working that same day in the control tower at LAX. But this gives you an idea of what controllers are looking at and dealing with. (Bob Riha Jr / Reuters)

Two days ago I mentioned the unflappable, multi-tasking and multi-dimensional competence with which an air-traffic controller at Denver’s Centennial airport handled a sudden shift in winds, and the resulting complete re-organization in flow of airplanes headed toward his runways. Deb Fallows did her “view from the right seat” complementary report on the episode.

A long-time controller, who runs a site about ATC, writes about what he heard in the audio archive of that interaction (emphasis added):

As a 30 year ATC veteran, I appreciated the clip you posted going into APA [the code for Centennial airport]. You’re right, the local guy did a very good job. I’ve sat in that metaphorical seat often, myself, although I’ve always been a center guy.

As a controller, I can tell you that crisp transmissions, grasp of the situation, and execution of clearances are very helpful when there are plenty of “say agains” going on. And trust me, your “nice job” was not missed nor wasted in the melee—just not time available to acknowledge. [At time 23:15 of this ATC recording, I give a rushed and spontaneous “Good job!” to the controller after I’ve landed, in appreciation of what I’d heard him do.]

Also, as a veteran of many tape talks (both given and received) I can tell you that he was about four times as busy as the tape indicates. All that talking is the result of a lot of scanning, a lot of planning, a lot of thinking, and a lot of recall.

I’d like to direct your attention to an audio recording of me at my ATC website. You may enjoy it, if you’re not sick of listening to ATC recordings already. I was working an arrival rush to ORD [O’Hare], not as dramatic as the APA guy, but it was a decent workout.