What Exactly Does an Air Traffic Controller Do?

Air traffic controllers play an essential role in ensuring safe air traffic. Where pilots ensure that their aircraft stays safely airborne, air traffic controllers ensure that they have safe routes to follow. I’ve been an air traffic controller for over 10 years, and I’d like to explain how things work and what we do.

A lot of people think that air traffic controllers work for KLM or Schiphol, but that isn’t the case. We work for an organisation called Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL), which is responsible for coordinating civilian air traffic over the Netherlands. LVNL employs around 950 people, 250 of whom are air traffic controllers, who work at Schiphol, Rotterdam, Beek and Eelde airports.

Military air traffic controllers

Some readers will note that Eindhoven is missing from the above list. That’s because Eindhoven is a military airfield, which falls under military airspace. This means the armed forces are in charge of air traffic control in Eindhoven. We do, however, direct any traffic on its way to and from Eindhoven passing through our airspace. We are always in direct contact with the military air traffic controllers.

At Schiphol, air traffic control is subdivided into three departments: Tower (TWR), Approach (APP) and the Area Control Centre (ACC).

Air traffic control tower

Tower – visible air traffic

The name says it all. The air traffic controllers who work in the Tower are responsible for traffic at and around the airport, within a radius of approximately 15 km. This includes aircraft on the taxiways and runways, as well as airborne traffic and any vehicles driving around the airport.

In short, Tower is in charge of all visible traffic. Aircraft that are further from the airport and therefore not visible to air traffic controllers are the responsibility of radar controllers.

Approach – separating approaching and departing traffic

The Approach department handles traffic within a radius of approximately 50 km from Schiphol, to an altitude of around 4 km. The Approach controllers are in charge of separating traffic arriving at and departing from the airport.

The Approach controllers coordinate traffic that is waiting over the North Sea and Flevoland and Zeeland provinces, directing them towards the airport and “zipping” them into line for their approach to the runway.

At the same time, the Approach controllers ensure that aircraft departing from Schiphol are guided onto the right flight paths. Aircraft regularly cross each other’s paths while executing these incoming and outgoing movements at Schiphol. The Approach controllers are there to ensure that this happens safely.

air traffic controllers

Area Control Centre – high-altitude traffic

The people at the Area Control Centre (ACC) are responsible for air traffic in the higher reaches of Dutch airspace. The work area of the ACC extends from the southern border of the Netherlands to far beyond of the Waddeneilanden along the northern coast, and from the English border in the west to the German border in the east. The ACC controllers handle traffic flying at altitudes between 4 and 8 km, mainly heading to and from Schiphol, but also bound for airports such as Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Brussels, Düsseldorf and London.

‘Circling’ in holding areas

Traffic on its way to Schiphol is guided from the Dutch borders to waiting areas, where aircraft fly around in holding patterns until they are allowed to land. This usually happens when there are delays, mainly due to bad weather, and it ensures that aircraft don’t have to crisscross the country while waiting.

Aircraft departing from Schiphol follow this route in reverse. As soon as they have been guided to their correct flight path, they want to climb to their cruising altitude as soon as possible. As soon as the boundary of one work area has been reached, responsibility for the aircraft is transferred to the next air traffic control unit.

radar SchipholPhoto: Marc Driessen

Reliant on Radar

Both Approach and ACC are fully reliant on radar. These two departments are located at our main building in Schiphol-Oost and not in the tower, as explained in our blog “6 Air traffic control myths busted”.

– Carlijn –

Posted by:   Feike en Carlijn  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Johan den Hartog

Amazing job which requires a lot from those people in charge. Not only during their job, but also in their private lives. Respect !!

Carlijn Geijsel

Thank you Johan! Such a great job is worth the sacrifices.

Paul Colyn

Good morning Feike en Carlijn!
I work at NavCanada, as a Flight Service Specialist. Curious if you have anyone who works for LVNL who specializes in weather briefing for your pilot community, like we do here in Canada.

Many Thanks, Paul Colyn (yes, that would be Colijn back in Holland!!)

Feike Westenbroek

Hi Paul,

Our company also employs Flight Service Specialists. But the weather briefing is part of the aviation meteorologist at KNMI, the national
aviation meteorological service provider.

Best regards,

Max Møller (Miller)

Very interesting, Comming through AMS Schipol 2-3 times per month.

Félix Maltchinski

Air trafic controllers are in charge off the planes on the cruising altitude to.

Feike Westenbroek

That is absolutely correct Félix. All traffic over the Netherlands above FL245 is handled by controllers at Eurocontrol in Maastricht.

Veerayut Ruchirek

You are a great people. Salute to all of you. Very informative.

Carlijn Geijsel

Thanks Veerayut!


Brilliant /Brilliance

Carlijn Geijsel



You do an amazing job

Carlijn Geijsel

I do it with pleasure, because I love my job!


Have a lot of respect for all those involved. This is one VERY responsible position to be in. Thanks for always being there.

Carlijn Geijsel

Thanks for you kind words!

Jefferson Ibarra

What shoud we have to be an air traffic controller in Netherlands?

Feike Westenbroek

Hi Jefferson,

If you are interested to become an Air Traffic Controller in the Netherlands you can visit https://www.luchtverkeersleider.nl/ or our sub page, https://www.luchtverkeersleider.nl/english

Best regards,

Steve Adby

Full of admiration for you guys and girls that get us around safely! Coming through Schiphol en route to Cape Town with KLM on 22/3/16!
Thank you for your dedication!

Carlijn Geijsel

I will wave to you tomorrow Steve !

Dheeraj Bharti

I am a Tower Controller at Chennai, India and it is great to see a good and informative blog on air traffic controllers.

Philippe Debels

Interesting and well-written, but how sad and disrespectful not to say one single word about EUROCONTROL and the Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC).
It controls the upper airspace over north-west Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium AND the Netherlands.
It is a wonderful and unique example of how European cooperation, both at a civil and military level, can result in safety, capacity and efficiency benefits for all.

Even if the blog is rather old now, I nevertheless look forward to your update.

Kind regards
Philippe Debels

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