FAA celebrates 75th anniversary of air traffic control

Posted: 6 July 2011 | FAA | No comments yet

The FAA marked the 75th anniversary of federal air traffic control as American aviation experiences its safest period ever…

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration today marked the 75th anniversary of federal air traffic control as American aviation experiences its safest period ever. Since its inception with 15 workers operating in just three control centers in 1936, the agency has become a world leader, pioneering safety improvements and developing new technology to speed up flights, save fuel and improve safety.

“The United States has the safest air transportation system in the world. But as the last 75 years show, we will never stop working to make our system even safer,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“As a pilot, I am in awe of the aviation safety and technological advancements that have been made in the last 75 years,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “NextGen represents the next milestone in aviation innovation. The FAA is committed to transforming our national airspace system so passengers can reach their destinations even more safely and more efficiently than they do today.”

Federal air traffic control began on July 6, 1936, when the Bureau of Air Commerce took over the operation of the first airway traffic control centers at Newark, N.J., Chicago and Cleveland. Faced with a growing demand for air travel, the 15 employees who made up the original group of controllers took radio position reports from pilots to plot the progress of each flight, providing no separation services. At the time, the fastest plane in the commercial fleet was the Douglas DC-3, which could fly coast-to-coast in about 17 hours while carrying 21 passengers.

Since then, the air traffic system has expanded from three control centers to include 131 federal stand-alone airport traffic control towers, 132 towers for terminal area approach control, 29 stand-alone terminal radar approach controls and 21 en route traffic control centers. The number of controllers has grown from 15 to more than 15,000, a workforce that handles an average of 50,000 flights each day. The DC-3 has given way to jet aircraft that can carry hundreds of passengers and fly from New York to Los Angeles in about five hours.

The FAA continues to pioneer new technologies that will make air traffic control safer and more efficient. The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, will transform air traffic control in the U.S. from a system of ground-based radars to one based on satellites. In parts of the country, controllers already are beginning to track aircraft via satellites with a state-of-the-art system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast, or ADS-B. ADS-B will be available nationwide in 2013 and will enable more direct routes, saving time and money while also lowering the industry’s environmental footprint.

This month the FAA will celebrate the 75th anniversary of federal air traffic control by highlighting advancements in air traffic controller training, NextGen, how the FAA handles convective summer weather and aviation infrastructure improvements.

For more information on the air traffic control anniversary, follow the FAA on Facebook at and read about Celebrating 75 Years of Federal Air Traffic Control (pdf).


Air Traffic Control Management — 75 Years and Counting

July 6th marks the 75th anniversary of federal control of air traffic in the United States. On this date the federal government began regulating air traffic with the creation of the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1936.


It started with bonfires. Immense torches miles in the distance guided the first pilots from grass runway to grass runway as they delivered the most important commodity of the day, the mail.

In the decades that followed, bonfires became beacons, land-based lighthouses that guided a new generation of pilots. Beacons became radar towers, waypoints in the sky that helped another generation of pilots find land.

With the passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 the U.S. developed air traffic rules that gave basic instructions to pilots, established navigation aids as well as standards for aircraft and instrument flight rules. The Act also granted the federal government the authority to license pilots.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, advances in technology led to the beginning of commercial air service and aircraft began flying during night time hours. Also during those decades, tremendous advances were made in avionics, ground-based radio navigation aids, and the manufacturing of modern commercial aircraft. The invention of the radio reconnected the pilot to support systems on the ground, providing navigation and weather information.

Air traffic picked up in the 1930s and so did the need to manage planes at airports and in the sky. This paved the way for the first airway traffic control center in Newark, NJ in December 1935. Chicago and Cleveland centers opened in 1936. These en route controllers tracked the position of aircraft using blackboards, maps and boat-shaped weights. En route controllers had no way of communicating with pilots then, but were in touch with the airport controllers, airline dispatchers and airport radio operators.

The Introduction of Radar

Radar had the greatest impact on aviation in the 1950s when controllers started using it to separate aircraft. With radar, controllers could track aircraft on display screens. Air traffic control centers started using the first air route surveillance radar in 1956 when the first air traffic control computer was installed at Indianapolis Center. A year later, the air traffic control radar beacon system came along.

The FAA Today

  • The FAA is the largest organization under the U.S. Department of Transportation with nearly 50,000 employees.
  • 15,461 air traffic controllers handle 50,000 flights a day. They ensure that not only passengers, but also that cargo — which could include medical supplies and mail — arrive at their destinations quickly. Air traffic controllers handled 51 million commercial, general aviation and military operations in 2010.
  • Each day 1.7 million passengers board a plane in the U.S. In 2010, 149.6 million passengers flew U.S. and international flights.
  • Aviation is critical to our nation’s economy. As recently as 2009, the industry generated more than 10 million jobs, contributed $1.3 trillion annually to the national economy, and accounted for 5.2% of the U.S. gross domestic product.
  • 6,071 technical operations specialists maintain the equipment in the National Airspace System.
  • The National Airspace System consists of: 131 federal stand-alone airport traffic control towers; 246 contract towers; 132 Towers/Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACON) — facilities with both a tower and a TRACON; 29 stand-alone TRACONs; 21 Air Route Traffic Control; and two Center Radar Approach Control facilities; an Air Traffic System Command Center; and 41,000 facilities that house radars and other air traffic equipment.

How Air Traffic Control Works

  • The air traffic facility most people associate with aviation is an airport traffic control tower. Tower controllers work air traffic within a few miles of the airport. This is called terminal airspace. The controllers in the towers instruct pilots during taxiing, takeoff and landing and they grant clearances.
  • Once the aircraft leaves the terminal airspace it is transferred to a TRACON controller who will manage the aircraft for about a 40 mile radius of the airport it has departed or at which it plans to land. Like tower controllers, TRACON controllers ensure that aircraft maintain minimum separation distances.
  • Most controllers do not actually see the aircraft they are managing. They are located at Air Route Traffic Control Centers managing traffic on radar screens at 21 different locations throughout the country. En route controllers take over the aircraft once the plane leaves the terminal airspace. They are responsible for aircraft in between airports and use sophisticated tracking systems to maintain a safe distance between planes.
  • The David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Northern Virginia oversees the entire air traffic control system. It is where traffic management specialists keep watch over the entire system, managing the 5,000 aircraft that are in the sky at any given moment. The Command Center operates 24-hours a day balancing air traffic demand with system capacity. Specialists work with others in the aviation industry to minimize air traffic delays and congestion and maximize the overall use of the airspace. Air traffic controllers at all facilities inform pilots of weather conditions but specialists at the Command Center look ahead at the weather and adjust traffic demands to meet capacity. They are also apprised of equipment outages, runway closures, security incidents and other issues that would impact air traffic.

Next Generation of Air Traffic Control

The FAA is in the process of completely transforming the nation’s airspace. A comprehensive initiative called NextGen will make air travel even safer, more dependable and efficient. NextGen integrates new and existing technologies to bring benefits in all areas of air traffic.

  • As the advent of radar was a tremendous asset to the aviation community, satellite technology offers even greater benefits. One of the most fundamental elements of NextGen is the movement from ground based radar to satellite based navigation. FAA is deploying a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), which allows for more precise monitoring of air traffic. It is a giant leap because it will enable both pilots and controllers to have a common picture of airspace and traffic. ADS-B offers more precision than radar because signals are transmitted once per second. The technology has been deployed at key sites where air traffic controllers are now using it to separate suitably equipped aircraft in areas with ADS-B coverage. Those sites include: the Houston en route center, providing coverage to the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisville TRACON, Philadelphia, Alaska and South Florida. The nationwide ground infrastructure is expected to be completed by 2013 and the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020. Visit this website for more detailed information on ADS-B:
  • NextGen will create more predictable travel. By 2018, NextGen will reduce total delays by about 35 percent compared with what would happen if we did nothing. That delay reduction will likely provide $23 billion in cumulative benefits to aircraft operators, the traveling public and the FAA.
  • New efficient GPS enabled flight procedures will save about 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons.
  • The FAA is already rolling out satellite-based approaches called Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which provide precise approaches to runways. The FAA has published 684 RNAV and 257 RNP procedures. Both RNAV and RNP, like the other tools in the toolbox, allow aircraft to safely land as quickly and efficiently as possible, saving time and money while burning less fuel.

NextGen is a historic movement forward in flight. New technologies, procedures and key data from aviation industry partners are all part of delivering NextGen. With a projection of one billion passengers boarding commercial airliners by 2021, the FAA will continue to look for ways to improve the air traffic control system and enhance safety. Read the FAA’s 2011 NextGen Implementation Plan for more information.