Blog: FAA Command Center, TRACONs Keep Eyes on the Big Picture


By:  Anthony Foxx
Date: March 4, 2014
Location: Unknown

If you're like most people, when you think about air traffic control and aviation safety, you probably picture an airport tower jutting into the sky with controllers inside focusing intently on their radar screens and the aircraft flying in and out of that airport. And while that's not an inaccurate picture, there's more to the story.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has regional Terminal Radar Approach Control centers--aviation insiders call them TRACONs--and a Command Center where traffic management experts look at the big picture of our national airspace system.

The David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center, is located in Warrenton, VA, about 40 miles outside Washington, DC, on the same campus as the Potomac TRACON, which manages airspace from Baltimore to Richmond. I've looked forward to visiting both sites and finally got the chance last month.

That visit reinforced the admiration and respect I have for all of the people who make our airspace the safest and most efficient in the world. They do important work behind the scenes to keep our system functioning properly.

Our national airspace accommodates thousands and thousands of flights each and every day. It's a crowded system, and every flight delay is meaningful to someone. In fact, flight delays cost airlines and passengers an estimated $16.5 billion a year and the U.S. economy another $2.4 billion a year indirectly. So, in addition to safety, the Command Center plays another important role by managing system-wide traffic flow to minimize delays and congestion to keep those costs down.

And they don't do it alone. The experts at the Command Center work together with air traffic control facilities around the country, with airspace stakeholders like airlines, the military, and general aviators, and with the FAA's technicians, all of whom have a voice in the daily planning that occurs at the center.

The collaboration between the Command Center's personnel, the FAA's field facilities, and aviation industry stakeholders ensures that any daily traffic management initiatives required because of weather, volume, or other factors serve the best interests of the entire system.

The FAA Technical Operations teams at the Command Center are also integral to the success of our airspace system. They keep watch over the legacy equipment that guides airplanes safely around the country, and they also focus on satellite operations and cyber security.

I came away from the Command Center pretty well-versed in an aviation details. So, if you were to ask me, How many airports are there in the U.S? I would be able to tell you that America is home to 19,700 airports, but only 5,170 of them are open to the general public and only 503 offer commercial service.

And in case you're curious, the FAA operates 516 airport towers, 284 TRACONs and 20 en route centers. TRACONs ensure safe separation between aircraft that are headed toward or from airports -- like the Potomac TRACON I visited-- and the en route centers handle flights at high altitudes.

So the next time you get ready to board a flight, remember that there are several thousand government workers at hundreds of facilities around the country dedicated to making your journey a safe and efficient one. I now have a much fuller appreciation of the work they do, and I hope this window into the FAA's operations will help you appreciate them a little more, too.

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