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The Truth Behind Air Traffic Controller’s “Shocking” TikTok Claim

Is his claim for real? And what does it mean to airline safety?

The Truth Behind Newsweek’s Shocking Viral Story about Air Traffic Controller Claim

An air traffic controller took to TikTok recently to answer the request to, “name one thing in your industry or profession that the general public would be shocked to know about?”

And his answer apparently did shock tens of thousands of people. In his own words:

“I’m an air traffic controller, and there are about 139 Federal stand-alone Air Traffic Control Towers in the United States. I work at one. And every night 84 of those, about 60 percent, shut down and all the controllers go home and there’s nobody there to work traffic and then they come back in the morning and reopen. And during those hours when the control tower is closed, it’s the pilots’ responsibility to talk to other pilots and make sure that they’re not going to hit each other.”

I can see why this claim might be shocking to people because I’m aware of some common misconceptions about the most basic ways that air traffic control works to interface with the flight crew of planes flying in the National Airspace System. Let me correct those misunderstandings.

1. Many air traffic control towers do indeed close at night. But not to worry. Those towers are mostly at lesser-traveled airports and, generally speaking, when those towers are closed there is very little traffic for pilots to keep an eye on. Rest assured that the air traffic control towers at JFK and O’Hare and other major airline airports are open 24/7. When the tower is closed, what happens? Nothing out of the ordinary. All pilots are trained from flight lesson number one on how to fly at airports without an operating control tower. It’s “how to fly” 101. Moreover, at night, when most of these closures are in effect, it’s easier to see other traffic than it is during the day, when planes can and do blend in with the background. Position lights at night are relatively easy to see. And for flights that are flying more regimented types of flying, called Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), the controllers that handle the different sectors of airspace from coast to coast are always on duty. Typically, it’s just the last few minutes of a flight to a smaller airport that airplanes are on their own, and even then, the controllers often have radar to use to give pilots a heads-up about other traffic.

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2. Air traffic controllers tell pilots where to fly and keep planes from hitting each other. This is only partly true. In practice, that kind of kit glove handling is reserved for only some of the aircraft (IFR flights) in the air at any given time. For all intents and purposes, airliners get this kind of hand-on attention on every flight for every step of the way. Planes that are flying under visual flight rules and that are not in heavily regulated airspace are on their own and have been since the days of the Wright Brothers. It’s the job of pilots not to hit each other, which they accomplish because, one, you need to be very unlucky indeed to hit another plane in the first place, and, two, pilots keep an eagle-eye for other planes. On top of that, most planes have advanced electronics to show them where other traffic is so they can avoid it.

3. The system works really well as it is. The regular closure of towers at night has a negligible effect on flying safety. Although airlines have in the somewhat distant past run into other airplanes, new equipment requirements and tighter airspace regulations, most of which are more than 50 years old at this point, put an end to such collisions (knock on wood). There hasn’t been a fatal mid-air collision involving an airliner since 1990, 32 years ago. And everyone on board the airliner, which hit a small plane, survived. So your chances of the airliner you’re flying in hitting another airplane, statistically speaking, is very close to zero.

And there’s no doubt that the air traffic controller who made the viral Tiktok comment knew this. And now you too know what the real truth behind the “shocking” fact he shared.

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@doaviation #stitch with @annaschozer air traffic control isn’t 24/7 at some places #airtrafficcontrol #pilot #plane #airport ♬ original sound – doaviation

Read the story on Newsweek’s website here.

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