Photo by Heather Middleton
By Maria-Jose Subiria
More than 30 radar scopes can be seen inside a large, dark room, where air traffic controllers are in communication with pilots flying aircraft within a 40-mile radius of the world's busiest airport.
The Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), in Peachtree City, is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Without the facility, airplanes couldn't get into and out of the Atlanta airport ... It is set up to where no one can fly into the Atlanta airport ... without being worked by an approach control facility. They can't do it," said Air Traffic Manager Brian Lentini. "So absent of having a facility like this, they couldn't get in or out of the airport."
Lentini explained that the Atlanta TRACON guides aircraft landing or departing from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Immediately after an aircraft departs from a runway at Hartsfield-Jackson, the FAA air traffic control tower transfers the flight over to the Atlanta TRACON, which guides the aircraft for 40 miles, said Lentini. The flight is then switched over to the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), in Hampton, which is also operated by the FAA, he said.
Lentini said that for flights arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson, the system operates in an opposite sequence, wherein the ARTCC transfers the flights over to the Atlanta TRACON, which works the flight until it reaches Hartsfield-Jackson.
He added that an air traffic controller at the Atlanta TRACON would work the arrival flight for 30 miles. Once the flight is 10 miles from the airport, it is switched over to the final controller position at the facility, he said. The final controller sequences the flights further to prepare them for landing at Hartsfield-Jackson, he explained.
As airplanes approach the airport, air traffic controllers communicate with pilots to make sure they are able to see the airplane in front of them, said Lentini. This is called the visual approach, he added.
Lentini said that if pilots cannot see aircraft ahead due to bad weather, they are transferred to controllers at the final monitor positions of the Atlanta TRACON, where flights are monitored on a radar scope.
"We'll sequence them into the airport, you know, put them in some organized manner... then we switch them to the tower so that they can clear them to land," Lentini said during an interview in his office at the Atlanta TRACON.
Hartsfield-Jackson has five runways, and when it is busy with arrivals, said Lentini, three runways are used for landing and two runways are used for departures. When there is an abundance of departing flights, three runways are used for departures.
"When they [air traffic controllers] are busy they are controlling maybe 10 or 12 airplanes at a time," said Lentini.
"This is the world's busiest airport, so most of the time it's busy here," Lentini added. "Busy would be defined as a period of time when there is a heavy arrival push coming to the airport, or a heavy departure push going off of the airport."
The Atlanta TRACON also guides air traffic for smaller airports within a 40-mile radius of Hartsfield-Jackson, including Dobbins Air Reserve Base, in Marietta; DeKalb Peachtree Airport, in Atlanta; Cobb County Airport-McCollum Field, in Kennesaw; Gwinnett County Airport, in Lawrenceville; and Newnan-Coweta Airport, in Newnan, said Lentini.
He said that before it was moved to its current location, the Atlanta TRACON was in an old FAA air traffic control tower at Hartsfield-Jackson. The TRACON was housed in the base of the building, which was built in the 1970s, he added.
"The controllers who worked there would work in the tower and TRACON," explained Lentini. "Everybody would rotate, between both the tower and the radar room."
According to Kathleen Bergen, FAA communications manager for the Southeast region, the Atlanta TRACON moved to expand its operations, as well as to fulfill the airport's masterplan, which was to move the old control tower from the future construction site of the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal.
In addition, the FAA had to prepare for the fifth runway, which opened in May 2006.
"You couldn't really see it [fifth runway] from the other tower. It was much shorter and plus, the facility was 30 years old and then there wouldn't have been property available to expand on that location either," Bergen explained.
The current control tower at Hartsfield-Jackson is the tallest in North America, with a height of 398 feet, according to the airport's web site, www.atlanta-airport.com.
Bergen said the FAA looked for an area that had available land to build the Atlanta TRACON facility, and was also close to where most of its employees lived, which was south of metro Atlanta, she said.
"So this [Peachtree City] was an area where all the criteria were met," said Bergen.
On April 10, 2001 the FAA opened its Atlanta TRACON location in Peachtree City, said Lentini.
The Atlanta TRACON covers 35 acres and is 78,000 square feet, FAA officials said. The total cost of the project was $56.6 million, which included $737,500 for land, $17.1 million for construction and $38.8 million for equipment and telecommunications.
"Controllers continued to work in both places," said Lentini. "Some days they would work down here [Atlanta TRACON] and work the radar. Other days they continued to work at the tower."
In February 2002, two airports were consolidated into the Atlanta TRACON, the territories of which included a 30-mile radius around Columbus Airport, in Columbus, and a 30-mile radius around Middle Georgia Regional Airport, in Macon.
"What it [consolidation] did was a couple of things. The buildings down at those locations at some point would need to be replaced so you save money on the physical plan of the building, not having to replace the radar facility," said Lentini. "It also allows you to do it with less people... It is more fiscally prudent."
Lentini said the consolidation added extra responsibilities to air traffic controllers, so FAA decided in October 2004 to keep the tower and TRACON operations separate.
"As time goes on in the air traffic system there is a lot more airports, a lot more approaches to airports ... more information for people to have to remember, so we wanted to keep it for people to be as proficient as they can be in their positions," said Lentini.