Airways - Making your world possible

What is air traffic control? A controller's perspective - part 2

Shailendra Pandaram

Shailendra Pandaram – “Panda” to his teammates – has worked for Airways as an air traffic controller for 20 years.  These days, he’s a team leader, managing Airways’ enroute controllers. 

Panda's first blog went back to basics on air traffic control and how it works. Read on for part 2 - how do we track aircraft in the skies, and what backups are in place if anything goes wrong?


How do we know just where that aircraft is?

Air traffic control is for aircraft flying in ‘controlled airspace’.  Commercial aircraft, of course, fly in controlled airspace most of the time – that’s your route from Auckland to Wellington, for example, flown dozens of times a day by Air New Zealand and Jetstar.

There are thousands of other aircraft flying in the New Zealand skies every day.  From medical personnel on a rescue helicopter to a farming couple popping up the coast to visit some friends, there are a wide variety of reasons for aircraft to be in the skies.

Flying in controlled airspace requires pilots to gain approval from air traffic control.  Once in, our controllers become responsible for ensuring the aircraft is where it should be – sort of like an insurance policy.

It is not a requirement to log a flight plan with Airways when flying outside of controlled airspace, but we do recommend it.  I think it’s a bit like travelling without insurance, providing that peace of mind that if something does go wrong, we’re looking out for you.  Our Flight Service people take care of these flight plans – called Visual Flight Rules – it’s all about making sure that people are reassured and safe.

More than a sixth sense – using radar to track aircraft

These days, most of New Zealand has the benefit of radar air traffic control coverage.  The radar system brings some excellent efficiency, allowing us to reduce aircraft separation to between three and five nautical miles.  Reduced separation means more aircraft can fit into the airspace, which is especially valuable at our major airports.

Air traffic controllers are trained in both radar and procedural control. 

Procedural approach systems require the controller to use flight progress strips to build a 3D picture in his or her mind.  This is where the very specific requirements for this job become apparent – you need a very strong suite in spatial awareness to be able to do this.  We apply the correct separation levels based on the aircraft’s position reports and altitude, gained from flight plans and from talking with the pilot in flight. 

Regardless of whether we are using a radar or a procedural system, everything we do is backed up on paper based flight progress strips.

Before the beginning of the flight, the pilot informs air traffic control of the flight plan.  This information is noted both on our computer system and on the flight progress strips, and any deviations in flight are replicated by writing on the strips.