How Air Traffic Control Works

Departure and approach corridors for eastward air traffic to and from airports in the San Francisco Bay Area TRACON airspace. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Image courtesy Federal Aviation Administration

Approach and Landing

When your descending plane is 50 miles from the San Francisco airport, it is within TRACON airspace. An approach controller directs your pilot to adjust the aircraft's heading, speed and altitude to line up and prepare to land along standard approach corridors. Your pilot then aligns your plane with the runway. When you are 10 miles (16 km) from the runway, the approach controller passes your plane off to the local controller in the airport tower.


The local controller in the airport tower checks the runways and the skies above the runways with binoculars and surface radar (local and ground controllers are the only controllers licensed to use visual information in performing their duties). When the local controller determines that it is safe, he or she gives your pilot clearance to land. The local controller also updates weather conditions for your pilot and monitors the spacing between your plane and other landing aircraft.

How Air Traffic Control Works

Air traffic controllers in the tower monitor takeoffs, landings and ground traffic with visual and radar tools.

Photo courtesy NASA

Once you've landed, the local controller directs your plane to an exit taxiway, tells your pilot the new radio frequency for the ground controller and passes your plane off to the ground controller.

The ground controller watches the runways and taxiways and uses ground radar information to ensure that your taxiing aircraft does not cross active runways or interfere with ground vehicles. He or she directs your plane to the appropriate terminal gate. Ground personnel from the airline use hand signals to assist your pilot in parking the airplane at the gate.