Air Traffic Control: A Sky Full of Planes Circling...Waiting for a Place to Land

A Sky Full of Planes Circling…Waiting for a Place to Land


A Sky Full of Planes Circling…Waiting for a Place to Land

Recall in an earlier blog, I discussed the earlier projected air-traffic control tower closings and provided a link to the proposed list. Now we have an update to this list. The complete list of air-traffic control towers to be closed can be seen here at the American Association of Aircraft Executives website. The closures are making big news worldwide. The final list includes 149 total tower closures including Dallas Executive in Dallas, Texas, Gary-Chicago International in Gary, Indiana, and Felts Field in Spokane, Washington. Effected are hundreds of FAA employees who currently work in these control towers. Of greater concern, however, are both the flight delays expected as air traffic backs up in major air centers. Jets will line the skies like geese looking to roost. This is certainly a valid concern along with safety and customer service. Pilots worldwide who travel to America are concerned with the likely increases in flight delays.  Pilots dislike flight delays as much as passengers, maybe more.  Thus many are concerned about this issue.  Charter Flight Group thought it would be useful to consider how air-traffic control developed and how it’s used today, so here we go.

The Development of Air-traffic Control

Air traffic control just sort of happened, evolved if you will as the flight industry evolved. As air traffic began to grow over cities in America and Europe, many became concerned about the likelihood of mid-air collisions. So radar equipped radio towers were built adjacent to airports world wide in short order. The idea was so practical and sensible that most small airports built them with no encouragement by industry authorities. At the time, the systems were simple and low-frequency.

There were two electronic systems that were perfected during World War II which augmented automation and erected the pillars of modern navigation. Low-frequency radio range (LFR) ruled the sky’s in the 30s and 40s such that pilots commonly referred this system simply as “the range.” Replacing the LF/MF system was the ‘Very High Frequency Omni-directional Range (VOR) which fit into the radio spectrum above the home FM radio frequencies devoid of static even during severe thunderstorms.

What the ‘Omni’ does is that it superimposes two signals over 360 degrees which allows pilots to determine the direction, but not the distance of his destination. The destination was determined by a second electronic system known as a DME, abbreviated from Distance Measuring Equipment. The DME consists of a transmitter/ receiver units in the plane and in numerous ground stations. The transmitter in the plane (dubbed ‘the interrogator) requests data from the ground unit by sending a signal to the specific station, the signal triggers an immediate reply from the ground unit (transponder), which is then again picked up by the receiver in the aircraft. An electronic device accurately measures the delay in time in the sending and receiving of these signals and displays the distance between plane and station.

The VOR/ DME was subsequently combined with a similar system that was used by the military for tactical air navigation (TACAN). The TACAN uses a single signal for both distance and bearing functions.

Better to Work Together

The merger between the two systems became to be known as the VORTAC system. It is the basic element that the aviation industry currently survives on. This same strategy is also employed by radar systems. The signals emitted, travel freely in the atmosphere until they come into contact with a hard surface . The signals that collide with the surface are bounced back to the transmitter. As with the DME, the signals are measured accurately using the time lapse between sending and the bounce back. Radar operators note the position of the plane as a blip on a viewing screen. A radar altimeter on the other hand employs the same principle in reverse by sending a beam to the ground that enables it to determine the planes height from the ground over which it is flying. Airborne radar is also commonly utilized to locate storms.

The growth of the aviation industry over the last few decades has seen an intense increase in air traffic, with almost well over 200,000 planes that use airways for domestic, international, and military purposes. Since 1965 the increase of volume pertaining to flights has been ‘outpacing’ air traffic control networks ability to control it. Saturation of the air traffic control system goes it to go haywire with the slightest of glitches; delayed flights and flight cancellations are commonly expected by frequent fliers.

Saturation of air traffic – air traffic controllers = air traffic congestion

Anyone who has ever spend time in a traffic jam understands congestion.  Congestion occurs when too many vehicles attempt to share the same space at the same time, namely the runway or landing strip.

This ‘issue’ begins more often than not at air terminals located in major capitals of the world (commonly referred to as Hubs). Most airports are like funnels and have ‘limited operating’ abilities ,as they are only able to sustain a given number of incoming or outgoing planes in a given ‘space of time’. The moment the ‘operating capacity’ increases the stream ‘backs up’ behind the funnel neck, planes that are due into the funnel are directed into ‘holding patterns’ there they circle awaiting clearance to land. Planes on the ground, at the same time are held from their points of departure, congesting other funnels elsewhere as well.

Another factor that air traffic controllers dread is bad weather. Inclement weather just makes everything worse and throws the entire routine ‘out of whack’. Radars are rendered useless, requirements necessitate rerouting airplanes to holding patterns frequently, or above the storm which may arise. Air traffic flight controllers instruct planes to either slow down or increase speed so as to stretch the distance between planes in flight; the air traffic controllers make decisions to ensure the smoothest landing by all.

However, in order to ensure that air traffic is optimized so that jets and turboprops, commercial, corporate, and private charters, and any other traffic is coordinated by eyes on the ground using sophisticated radar to view their sections of the sky. They coordinate with other air-traffic control towers so that all flights take off and land as safely, efficiently, and smoothly as possible. So when there are fewer air-traffic controllers at a time when total air traffic is increasing, one thing is certain: Congestion.

The chain-reaction of congestion

Congestion spreads in a chain reaction that slows the entire system and at times, these ‘traffic jams’ reach ‘crisis levels’. The introduction of the Area Navigation System (RNAV) has seen some improvements over time, but has yet to overcome ‘stormy factors’. The old jibe that goes – ‘if you have time to spare, go by air’ has become an ache for the aptness it contains.

So for those who have been complaining for years about the flight delays I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that this problem at the airports will only get worse. The good news is that you can always fly by private charter and I happen to know of a really great charter company (hint–Charter Flight Group). By taking a private charter flight, you’ll find that delays are not as extensive in such times and security checks are virtually non-existent. Oh, right, I haven’t even discussed the TSA layoffs of security checking personnel as the sequester kicks in.

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