Inside the room where the FAA controls US airspace

Oct 23, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

I felt like I’d arrived at a super cool, progressive high school in the Virginia suburbs.

After driving through subdivisions of huge cookie-cutter houses, I pulled up to a gatehouse, with two modern-looking buildings in the distance. I was directed into the visitor’s parking lot.

I cleared security, and the guard took me over to a big map on the wall.

“We have two buildings on this campus,” he said, pointing to the diagram. “TRACON is this big building, and the command center is the smaller one.” He took me to the door. “You’re going to walk over to that second flag pole.”

I was definitely not in high school.

I was at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, a world heavy with acronyms — TRACON stands for “terminal radar approach control” — where US airspace is managed every day. 

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

In the hierarchy of air traffic control, this facility sits at the very top. It tells all the other ATC facilities around the country what to do with their airspace every day. The command center is basically the puzzle master, synthesizing the needs of airlines and industry stakeholders against constraints like weather, runway closures and other issues that affect the free movement of airplanes through the skies.

According to Jennifer Ross, the national operations manager, the command center has to “mediate competing interests to do what’s best for national airspace.”

To that end, the command center has seats on the floor for industry organizations to take part in the decision-making process. There’s Airlines for America, the airlines’ industry group;  IATA, their international association; the National Business Aviation Association; and others, who are all represented every day as FAA employees figure out the best air traffic patterns to move planes safely and efficiently.

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

But these decisions aren’t made spontaneously.

The command center tries to plan as far in advance as possible. Planning around the weather can begin two to four days ahead of time, but coordination about pre-planned events like the Super Bowl or rocket launches, which cause extra traffic and/or airspace closures, can begin even earlier.

Generally, one person (with the backing of an advanced planning team) is in charge of coordinating and executing a plan from start to finish. When the day is done, the outcomes of the day’s execution are reviewed, so a refined version of the plan can be used in similar circumstances in the future.

On the day I visited, a front passing across the middle of the country — the green, yellow and white shape in the image below — was affecting air traffic in Houston and Chicago. Some planes traveling west to Houston had to fly past the city, and then approach in an easterly direction to avoid the worst of the weather.

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

Although the day’s rules are applied broadly to every plane in US airspace, the system still has some flexibility on a case-by-case basis.

Ross explained that exceptions can always be made to the day’s traffic pattern if the rules unduly affect certain flights.

The example she used: if all flights from New York to Seattle were routed on a northerly track over Canada, but one specific plane would have to stop to refuel if it followed that route, that plane could apply for an alternative flight path.

To keep stakeholders informed, there are planning webinars every two hours that include controllers around the country, airline representatives, airport operators and others. The regular updates help ensure the traffic plan is being executed efficiently, and is appropriate for real-world conditions in the moment. Ahead of those planning sessions, operational employees are given a briefing about weather conditions, so they can update the plan as needed. Weather briefings are also available to supervisors and specialists as needed.

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

During major events like snowstorms, airport operators are intimately involved in the planning process, keeping controllers in the command center up-to-date on how quickly they can clear runways and how much traffic their facilities can handle.

Airlines and other stakeholders have access to a limited version of much of the information synthesized by the command center, allowing individual companies to figure out how to best respond to reduced capacity in certain regions and at certain airports.

In times of crisis, special teams assemble in what’s known as the Joint Air Traffic Operations Center, in a special room just off the main command center floor, where those most affected by the event can coordinate more closely.

Every day brings different challenges, but the national command center is ultimately responsible for keeping the airspace over the US safe and moving efficiently, no matter what obstacles Mother Nature or anyone else tries to put in the way.

All photos by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.