Photos: The technology driving air traffic control


Controllers at work in the old control room

Controllers at work in the old control room

Plotting a flight’s route: Flight data, including its intended route, the type of aircraft, and its altitude, is currently printed out.

A series of empty spaces on the paper are used to record instructions passed to the aircraft or information received from it. Several strips of paper are used per aircraft, each relating to a different time and position.

The controller compares the positions of each flight at a given time, and builds up a mental model of where they all are. He or she tells any aircraft that might conflict to turn, climb or descend to resolve any problems. The paper strips are stored for about 30 days after the flight has passed through the airspace.

The technical version of this – the Electronic Flight Data (EFD) – is expected in the winter this year, and will allow information on each aircraft to be shared more easily between controllers. It will also make potential conflicts or unusual circumstances more obvious.


Controlling air traffic is one of the world’s more stressful jobs. There’s the “life and death” element of it, plus the need for razor-sharp reactions on everything from terrorist attacks to extreme weather. But despite the apparent complexity of the task, and the high-tech appearance of the equipment, it’s still a job that relies completely on the ability and skill of its staff.

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