6 Air Traffic Control Myths Busted

Posted by at 09:30

Whenever I mention that I work at Air Traffic Control, I’m reminded that people have strange ideas as to what my job entails. There are various myths that are completely inaccurate. I’ll be busting a half dozen of them in this blog.

1. So you’re an air traffic controller? That means you’re out there waving around your ping-pong bats, right?

Many people don’t know the difference between an aircraft marshaller and an air traffic controller. Marshallers use “ping-pong bats”, flags or light signals to direct aircraft to their correct position at the gate or any other parking bay. Air traffic controllers, on the other hand, supervise flying and taxiing air traffic and ensure that the aircraft are kept at safe distances from one another. In short, we use our radio to tell pilots where they have to go and when.

myth 1

2. Air traffic controllers never look out the window. They just stare at their screens

We do have radar screens up in the tower, but we mainly handle traffic based on what we see from our window. In short, we sit staring out of the window a lot. In fact, we can handle more traffic if we can see it directly than if we have to rely on technology.

This is also one of the reasons why air traffic is delayed when visibility is poor at the airport. Because we can’t see the aircraft and they can’t see each other, or even the taxiways on really bad days, we insist on bigger distances and intervals between aircraft than we would on a nice, clear day. This means we can handle less traffic when the weather is poor. The radar screens then ensure that we can keep doing our job.

myth 2 luchtverkeersleider

3. They’re all up there in the tower

Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL) employs around 900 people, including around 250 air traffic controllers. Schiphol tower’s upper observation cupola can accommodate a maximum of eight people. This area is only used to handle traffic at the airport itself and within a 15-kilometer radius of the airport.

All other air traffic operating within our national airspace is handled by the radar centre at Schiphol East. This includes air traffic departing from and approaching Dutch airports, but also traffic passing through Dutch airspace on its way to Brussels or Dusseldorf, for example. There are also air traffic controllers stationed at the airports in Groningen, Rotterdam and Maastricht. The remaining LVNL staff mainly work at our offices in Schiphol Oost.

myth 3 luchtverkeersleider

4. All air traffic controllers are always stressed

If that were really the case, we’d all be sitting at home in no time. To become an air traffic controller, you have to complete a comprehensive selection procedure, during which your coping skills and all sorts of other abilities are tested. While we’re at work, we also keep a close eye on ourselves and our immediate colleagues. If things tend to get too busy, we split the airspace up into sectors that we handle with several colleagues. Also, we’re only allowed to work for 2 hours and 20 minutes at a stretch, before we have to take a compulsory break, during which we can relax at a PC or at the pool table, or we can work out in our gym.

5. You must be really good at maths

It’s handy if you can use mental arithmetic to calculate where one aircraft will be in relation to another aircraft in X minutes’ time, taking into account aircraft performance and wind factors. But we also have a lot of technology at our disposal that helps us do our jobs. In short, it is easier if you’re good at mental arithmetic, but you certainly don’t have to be a whizz kid. You do, however, need good spatial awareness skills, because you need to see those 2-D radar images as 3-D images in your head.

myth 5 luchtverkeersleider

6. You need to speak at least five languages to communicate with all the pilots

In our world, we speak a unique language called radiotelephony (RT). This is based on English and there is a lot of jargon involved. Even if English is your first language, you need time and training to understand and speak the language of air traffic control. That means we all speak the same language, regardless of whether we’re talking to a French, Chinese, Dutch or Russian pilot.

When Dutch air traffic controllers talk to each other, they usually speak Dutch combined with RT. This can lead to rather amusing sentences. If you look carefully, you may be able to spot some of the English RT terms in the following: “De KLM1234 gaat op een heading om er wat delay uit te vliegen, dan gaat de KLM5678 holden in de stack op flightlevel 100.”

Heard it al before?

It’s quite possible you’ve heard or read this before. We’ve posted this interesting and funny blog on 8 February 2016. So this actually is a repost. But not without reason: our great KLM Intern On a Mission used this blog for some serious vlog inspiration. Did it work? Find out for yourself:

 

81 Responses to 6 Air Traffic Control Myths Busted

  1. Alan

    Amazing,

    • Bert Overweel

      Guardian angels . They are protecting millions of people flying around the world .

  2. Andrew Joseph

    As a pilot here in the US, I love learning about others who work in the aviation world. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective with the masses.

  3. astrid verkaik

    Just to let you know.. I look up the tower every week when I am flying in from Zürich- Amsterdam. I am Dutch but I am also thinking. Y do not meet and see them but I realize you a very responsible job to do!!!! Nice to get some more insight information.. Tomorrow I arrive with KLM again into Amsterdam. Arrival 11.00AM.. I will smile at y guys!!!! ALl of you!

    • Feike Westenbroek

      And we’ll be waving back at you Astrid ;)

    • Niki

      Don’t forget to smile at the en-route controllers too! We also look after you! ;) safe trip!

  4. Felix Cattenstart

    I love to read the blog. What my question is, is what does Eindhoven Airport do with LVNL? You mentioned Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Groningen, Maastricht, Dusseldorf, Brussels, but I missed Eindhoven. Is it the military doing it there?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Thank you Felix. Eindhoven is under militairy control. However, aircraft inbound to Eindhoven from the West or from the South are also handled by our Air Traffic Controllers, because they will cross our airspace.

  5. pat

    Can you really be wasted drunk doing this job ??
    IM from Ireland by the way

    • Feike Westenbroek

      No, of course we can’t Pat. How do you reckon?

      • Dave

        Ireland. Say no more :-)

  6. Jean-Charles

    How long are the studies to do that amazing job ?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Jean-Charles. It takes about 4 years of training to complete the ATC course.

  7. Malcolm

    Why is there a military and a civil ATC, Why not one system?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      We are working hard to join forces with military ATC in the Netherlands Malcolm. So in the future we’ll be working together in one radarcentre at Schiphol.

    • Bob van der Flier

      If I may add from many years of experience in ATC, there are some important difference between military and civil air traffic (control). The purpose of each of them is rather different.
      Another significant issue is that the military in one country all fly for the same boss, where in civil aviation there is competition and a lot of commercial thinking….
      For what it’s worth ;)

      • Pepe >Ð

        Do you mean to say civil ATCs give more priority/attention to certain companies than others?

  8. Marius Gunning - Goes

    Hi – “Guy’s”, thanks for the blog; I am a former mil. atc-er and I follow the EHAM freq,s via Live ATC.com every day;recognizing all your voices in the meantime;question 1 ) is tower west occupied by only one 1 person ? or more ? 2) why is the SPY 2K departure so explicit to be confirmed by the pilots ? 3) is it possible to visit the EHAM ATC ?
    4) why don’t we see the Coastguard and the policice traffic NOT ANYMORE on Flightradar 24 ? as we did yes in the old days ? thanks for reading and enjoy !

  9. Feike Westenbroek

    Hi Marius, to answer your questions;

    1 Tower West is occupied by one Air Traffic Controller and one Ground Controller.
    2 That’s because we want to make sure they’ll acctually fly the SPY2K (with departures from rwy24 + 18L in use) and not the AND1S (departures from rwy 24 only) as possibily cleared before. The AND1S is in direct conflict with the 18L departures, the SPY2K ain’t.
    3 Visiting EHAM ATC is not that easy, it has to be a work-related visit and not just for the tour.
    4 Coastgurad and Police traffic are not broadcasting Mode S-ADSB because of tactical reasons. At ATC we can still follow them by radar of course.

    Regards,
    Feike

  10. Ciprian

    Hello, I am really curious how do you plan your aircraft rotations. I see, for instance, a lot of outbound flights schedule to depart to an intercontinental destination just at the same time as the inbound flight from that destination arrives. How do you decide which aircraft will operate which sector? How do you handle an aircraft replacement due to operational issues.

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Ciprian,

      The things you mention are determined by the company, KLM for example, not by ATC. So I haven’t got the answer to your question.

  11. Henk Barkhof

    Thanks for this insight. Must be , at some times , a very hectic job.

  12. Marius Gunning - Goes

    Dear Fijke, thanks for your answers; 1 ? more: last week tuesday the KL 597 to Cape Town ( normally the callsign is also KL 597 ) had all of a sudden a different callsign ( something like KL 170 or so ); Also the returnflight of the PH-BQB back to EHAM used such a different callsign. do you know for what reason ?

    thanks & bibi

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Marius,

      The callsigns or flightnumbers are determined by the company, not by ATC. So I haven’t got the answer to your question.

  13. Marius Gunning - Goes

    Dear Fijke, thanks for yr reply; 1? more: normally the callsigns are the same as the flightnumbers……but sometimes all of a sudden NOT……….for what reason ?

  14. Vincent

    I like listening to ATC. For example via internet. My biggest question, why callsign like KLM 1234 changes in KL34 or KL234?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      There are differences between flight numbers and ATC callsigns Vincent. So if you’re flying onboard the KL1304, communications between the aircraft and ATC will be KLM96H. Transavia’s flight number out of Athens for example is HV6868, but on our frequency we will communicate with them as “Transavia 6868”, abbreviated on paper as TRA6868.

  15. MR.Kim

    Oh, it is good information.
    My job is also ATC in incheon, korea.
    So interesting!

  16. Andy

    What technical information is needed to calculate the separation of aircraft in flight? How does the weight factor into this?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Andy,

      On radar we are seperating flights from each other on distance or height information. 3nm or more is needed depending on airspace, radar source and differences between aircraft. 1000 feet in height is also a safe clearance. This information is provided to us by primary and secundary radarsources. As ATC we’ll have to look on our scopes and seperate flights on the information given. From the tower we are seperating flights visually, or on a time based mode. Depending on the aircrafts wake-turbulence category (not weight) we’ll need more or less seperation between the flights.

  17. Tom Jacobs

    Kunnen jullie een duidelijker lettertype gebruiken voor het blog? Om te beginnen is de letter erg “dun” en daarnaast wordt ie ook nog eens in t grijs geprint, zodat er helemaal niks van overblijft.
    Probeer om te beginnenn eens te printen in zwart. Alsjeblieft. Ik vind jullie stukjes leuk om te lezen maar t kost zo veel moeite …

  18. Margreet

    This is so interesting. Now I can imagine more about your Job. Thank you Feike. Next time I would like to read more about youre fascinating work. .

  19. Diederik

    Where is number 4???

    Where is the accuracy?? :)

    • Diederik

      I see only 5 myths being busted…

      • Feike Westenbroek

        You are right Diederik, we will seek out the missing #4.

        • Diederik

          It’s probably holding at SUGOL

          • Feike Westenbroek

            Found it at NARSO, of all places…coming through ;)

  20. chris Reed

    Air traffic controllers are one of the main reasons you are safer in an aeroplane than in your own house. Big responsibility. Great job guys. Thanks for your expertise.

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Thank you for the compliments Chris!

  21. Karen

    Enjoyed your educational blog. Look forward to another one from you in the near future.

  22. Adam

    Great article! I really enjoyed reading it.
    Is it true there is an age limit to be an Air Traffic Controller? If so, what is it and why?

    Thanks

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Adam, thank you for the compliments.

      Yes there is an age limit to be(come) an air traffic controller. When you apply at LVNL, you have to be 26 or younger. That is because at a certain age, your capabilities to succeed the course are significantly less. Also the costs to get an ATC trainee ready for the job are fairly high so that is a business-economical reason to have the age limit. An air traffic controller retires at 58. That’s because of the intensity of the job.

      • Mike Lima

        Hi,

        I think the age limit is dependent on which country you are from. I’am an ATC here in Malaysia and I was 30 when I started my ATC course.

  23. Federico

    Hey, I have a question!
    Does every Air Traffic Controller work only with one frequency in his career, or they switch from time to time (weeks, months?) between Ground, Departures, Tower etc?

    Interesting article anyway!

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Frederico,

      At ATC the Netherlands controllers are dedicated to work at their licensed positions. Area controllers are certified to work in all of our Area Controlled airspace. Approach Controllers are certified for approach and tower. We’ve also got ground controllers and planning controllers at their own positions. As an air traffic controller you wil follow the course for most positions.

  24. Bart de Winter

    Duidelijkverhaal Feike,
    Groet van Bart de Winter vkl met flna

  25. Ayman Mawed

    Hi,great information ,why 5 languges ,u have a standered clearances issued by iaco, i am ATC ,ACC live in Amsterdam but my age 42 and no way to find a job in ATC here ,wish to find a job in any aviation part.i think air traffic controllers are same in all over the world.

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Ayman,

      The myth states that air traffic controllers have to speak 5 languages, so that’s busted ;)

      It’s a shame you cannot find a job here in ATC at the moment. Where did you follow your course?

  26. Jan van Exel.

    Thanks for you open and detailed information. Gibes a better insight in what happens in that tower. Did not know that your tower control is only 15km radius. Which lraves the rest to Schiphol Oost. Thanks for sharing and look forward to read more of this blog info. Have a niceday, Jan.

  27. Abdul Qavi

    Awesome blog for a curious mind.

    1. Can you elaborate on call signs what are they and how are they determined?

    2. How do you coordinate aircraft gate or bay with the airline staff who communicate that to passengers almost 24 hrs in advance sometimes

    3. What are the road signs next to run ways and taxing roads in Schipol how are they named and how does a new pilot find his way to the right gate?

    Thanks very much indeed.

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Abdul.

      I’ve got some bad news for you involving the first two questions.

      1. Call signs are determined by the airline, so ATC are not involved in that process. I do not have the answer for you.
      2. Aircraft gates are determined by airport authorities. They’ve got so called ‘gate planners’ on duty. ATC just guides to and from the given gate numbers. So again, I do not have the answer for you.
      3. The road signs next to the runways and taxiways are guidances for pilots. On these signs, pilots can see where they are and what they are about to cross. Pilots are expected to have an airport map on board to find their way at the airport. They can be helped by ATC, though at busy hours, it’s better when a pilot finds his own way rather then be guided on every turn. Pilots have to listen to ATC while taxiing at all time.

      The taxiway names at Schiphol are given logical names. Main taxiways are ‘Alpha’ and ‘Bravo’. Northern taxiways are called ‘November’, Southern ‘Sierra’, Western ‘Whiskey’ and Eastern ‘Echo’. At general aviation we have got taxiways ‘Golf’.

  28. Dan

    Hey, I’m an airline pilot from the US, and I hope to be doing some trips across the big pond soon. Are there some mistakes that you see American pilots make more than others?

    • Adj

      Hello from across the channel! I’m approach at Heathrow. Flying through Amsterdam this year to get to Havana and I’m really looking forward to it as I have an overnight in Amsterdam first :)

      • Feike Westenbroek

        What will you be doing during this one night Amsterdam Adj? Have a nice trip.

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Dan. You’re more than welcome on this side of the ocean. US pilots tend to use the frase “say again” slightly more than pilots more familiar with European ATC. Must be the overnight flight ;)

      Save trips!

  29. Paul Colucci

    I’m 20 years old and live in Canada. I want to be an Air Traffic Controlller. What’s the normal age of getting into a career like this??

    • Feike Westenbroek

      It’s great you want to join forces in this wonderful career Paul. In the Netherlands you can apply after high school till the age of 27. I’d recommend you to contact Nav Canada to check on their admissions of you’d like to work in Canada.

    • Sylvie G.

      Hello Paul! 2 answers in the comments above might help you. You nn to hurry up and study :-) This is for the Netherlands of course, so check what’s going on in Canada for same project.

      . It takes about 4 years of training to complete the ATC course.

      . Yes there is an age limit to be(come) an air traffic controller. When you apply at LVNL, you have to be 26 or younger. That is because at a certain age, your capabilities to succeed the course are significantly less. Also the costs to get an ATC trainee ready for the job are fairly high so that is a business-economical reason to have the age limit. An air traffic controller retires at 58. That’s because of the intensity of the job.

      Ciao,
      Sylvie G./Montreal

  30. Muhamad Pitt

    What is/are the qualification (degree?) to be fitted for this job? Thank you.

      • Muhamad Pitt

        I see… We also have to pass the test by the DCA right… Thanks for the quick reply though… ;)

  31. W8post

    Where is the relation [if any] between ‘Schiphol control’ and ‘Eurocontrol’?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      LVNL is in control of the traffic below FL245. Eurocontrol handles the traffic above. We are two different organizations as Eurocontrol work under European jurisdiction, LVNL is Dutch.

  32. Sylvie G.

    Hello Feike! Thanks for this great post, it is always nice to learn new stuff. You mentioned that you work for a max. of 2hrs20min. at a time, how long is your break between each work session? And how long is your shift time (total maximum)?

    Bonne journée. Ciao,
    Sylvie G./Montreal CYUL
    (was KL Sales at some point in my life! “My heart belongs to KL” ;-)

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Nice to hear from you from Montreal Sylvie! Our breaks are 30 minutes at least. Usually there are two breaks during one shift and one shift is 7hrs at max, depending on traffic intensity/workload. Is that any different from Montreal?

  33. Chantelle

    I’m an airline pilot with security clearance. Is it possibly to visit the control tower or centre on a layover? Or it still isn’t enough?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Chantelle. It is possible for foreign pilots to visit our control centre for familiarisation. You can contact us via communications@lvnl.nl.

  34. Norbert

    Hi nice paper you guys wrote, I live next to runway 18R-36L and noticed they are building a new tower (its realy direct in front of my house on approx 1.5 mile distance so i can’t mis it!) is this tower going to replace the other towers?
    also we notice sometimes the runway sometimes sudenly chainces from starting to landing or vice-versa, without weather chaincing, is this a decission made by air trafic control ore is this regulation to minimise noise?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      Hi Norbert.

      The tower you’ve spotted is going to be our replacement approach radar. So our control towers will be as they are.

      The decission to change runways is up to Air Traffic Control. As you may know, 18R/36L is a preferred runway for noise abatement. With little wind, or a slight breeze from the West we can use the runway for take-offs and landings, depending on traffic. Also availability of other runways plays a role in runway use.

  35. Not

    What do you mean when you say that you need to interpret 2D-pictures in the screen to 3D-pictures?

    Why can you just interpret them as they are?

    • Feike Westenbroek

      With climbing, descending, lateral moving, fast, slow and holding traffic al flying through the same airspace it’s just way easier if you have the complete picture as it is in real life than just the green dots on a scope ;)

  36. Ronald

    number 2 and 3 are in conflict ;)

  37. Norman

    My mother was perhaps one of the first Air Traffic Controllers during the second world war. She had two lights: one red and the other green. I worked at Maastricht UAC and took her and my father (ex-RAF aircrew) for a visit, and look around the Ops room. Her first question – God bless her – was “Where are the lights?”.

  38. LUTHER Maday

    Love Schipol as I have never had a delay! You guys rock!

    Thank you for all you do!

    -Luther @luther_maday

  39. Jeanette

    Interesting read. Our eldest son is 10 and wants to become air traffic controller
    Do you have any good tips for him?

  40. Walter

    Deze had ik dus gemist. Dus dank voor de re-post. Leuk stukkie trouwens jongens!
    (Nog iets anders: Waarom gaat het fout in Barcelona?)
    vr gr, walter

  41. Zsolt

    thank you guys bringing me home in one piece!

  42. Fghj

    English… Maybe you get more hits.

    • Joery

      If you are referring to the blog: there’s an English language option in the top bar on the right. ;-)

  43. Jilte

    The answers to myth 2 and 3 seem to contradict each other. Only the ATCs that work in the tower look out the window. All other ATCs only look at a radar screen.

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