USA's most challenging airports

Ask Air Traffic Control: USA’s most challenging airports – Question: Which U.S. air traffic facilities are considered the most challenging for ATC, and why?

Answer: Most airports and air traffic facilities have a challenge that is unique to them or to their airspace. Here are several of the most challenging:

1) The Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) ground control position is the most challenging in the United States. This is because the airport has space restrictions for aircraft larger than a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320. LAX controllers work more aircraft per square acre, per year, than controllers at any other airport. When an Airbus A380 lands, the airport practically comes to a halt on the side on which the aircraft has landed due to the close proximity of the taxiways.

2) New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) offers unique challenges for controllers due to air traffic volume, airspace complexity and major air carrier airports in its airspace. The controllers at a TRACON handle flights between a tower and an Air Route Traffic Control Center (also known as a “Center”); they facilitate departures transitioning from the airport to the Center environment and then take the aircraft from the Center environment and get them lined up and in sequence to land at an airport. New York TRACON has three major air carrier airports within 10 miles of each other, John F Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia and Newark Airports. This is challenging enough, but when you add in the TRACON’s proximity to Philadelphia International Airport and the general aviation airports in the New York Metropolitan area, including Teterboro, White Plains and Islip, it becomes very challenging, with even more aircraft and complexity added into the airspace.

3) Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZOB) is not the busiest Center in terms of the number of aircraft controllers handle, but it has one of the more challenging airspaces. Controllers at a Center are responsible for guiding aircraft between TRACONs in a particular volume of airspace at high altitudes. Cleveland Center handles flights at high altitudes in over 70,000 square miles of airspace that covers portions of Maryland, Michigan, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia as well as the southernmost portion of Ontario, Canada. The Center’s airspace is particularly challenging for air traffic controllers because it is essentially shaped like a funnel, with the small ends connected in the middle.

4) Atlanta Center (ZTL) is challenging for controllers because it is the busiest Center in the country. Controllers at this facility handle flights at high-altitudes in 122,000 square miles of airspace over portions of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee. Atlanta Center controllers handle more flights than any other facility. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield Jackson International, is under the jurisdiction of Atlanta Center and this facility also handles flights arriving and departing from the fifth busiest airport in the country, Charlotte, N.C. (CLT).

5) Southern California TRACON (SCT) was formed with the merger of five former Southern California area TRACONs into one. This TRACON’s airspace covers 13,000 square miles over Southern California. Terrain and 53 airports in this TRACON’s airspace make it one of the most challenging in the country at which to work.

6) Potomac TRACON (PCT) has unique challenges due to special airspace procedures for Homeland Security and restrictions on aircraft due to national security. Controllers at this facility follow rules that others do not experience. PCT’s airspace spans 12,000 square miles, and covers many of the Washington, DC, area airports, including Andrews Air Force Base (ADW), Washington National (DCA), Washington Dulles (IAD) and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International (BWI). Many VIP aircraft movements and military aircraft out of ADW combined with airline traffic to DCA, IAD and BWI make working at this facility challenging. Also, the location of DCA and IAD make for crowded airspace, and the prohibited area just off the departure end of runway 1 at DCA presents challenges for the controllers.