Did you know that every time you fly you’re taking part in a relay race on a huge scale where the runners are air traffic controllers and you and your plane is the baton?

Throughout your flight, completely unknown to you as a passenger, you’re being passed between controllers who are often working hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.

Let’s take a flight from London Heathrow to JFK in New York. During a typical journey, around 16 controllers from across national, organisational and geographic boundaries are working together to get you safely from A to B.

When an aircraft leaves Heathrow it will follow a certain route depending on the location of the North Atlantic jet stream. The jet stream always flows from West to East, creating a headwind to be avoided during outbound flights, and a tailwind to ride on the way home.

4x100m relay

Relay Race at the London Olympics taken by Flickr user Sum_of_Marc

Depending on its exact location, your plane will leave UK airspace either via South Wales, Scotland or Ireland. In this case, let’s go with South Wales…

Controller Count 1: The Delivery Controller, who sits in Heathrow Tower, is contacted by the pilot once the aircraft is ready to go. He or she will then give the pilot air traffic control clearance.

Controller Count 2: The Delivery Controller will pass you to the Ground Movement Controller, also in the tower, who will give the pilot the nod to push back and taxi towards the runway.

Controller Count 3: As your aircraft approaches the runway, the Ground Movement Controller transfers you to the Air Controller, again also in the tower. He or she is in charge of lining aircraft up on the runway and providing final clearance to take off.

Controller Count 4: The Air Controller will see you up to around 3,000 feet before handing you over to someone sitting roughly 70 miles away in NATS’ Terminal Control Centre in Swanwick, Hampshire. It’s that Terminal Controller’s job to help you climb safely up to 13,000 feet through London’s congested airspace.

Controller Count 5: Our fifth controller is also based at Swanwick, but in the Area Control team. It’s this Area Controller who guides you westward, keeping you safely separated from other planes while climbing up to 26,000 feet.

Controller Count 6: To keep traffic levels manageable, airspace is made up like a 3D jigsaw pieces called sectors. By this point in your journey you’re going to be somewhere over the Bristol Channel and the Sector 23 controller will hand you over to whoever is working the wonderfully named Strumble Sector. By now you’re at your cruising altitude of around 33,000 feet.

Controller Count 7 and 8: The Strumble controller passes you to the a controller working for the Irish Aviation Authority, who will in turn then hand you back to NATS, but this time to someone working in our centre at Prestwick, Aryshire, who will guide and monitor you out into the mid-Atlantic.

Controller count 9 – 16: From the mid-Atlantic onwards, NATS passes you into US airspace where the whole process is repeated, but in reverse until you safely touch-down on the tarmac in New York.

So that’s the hidden story behind every flight, with the principle being the same wherever you’re flying to and from.  Every time you board a plane a team of people, separated by geography and nationality (if you’re going abroad!) are working together behind the scenes to make sure you get to where you’re going safely and on time.

Controlling aircraft is an incredibly skilled and demanding job, so the next time you’re checking in ready to fly, remember the air traffic controllers working behind the scenes to get you where you need to go.

Find out more about the different types of controller.


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Great insight




Slightly inaccurate, it should be sector 23 not sector 26 for that route #ocd

Good spot, James and you’re quite right. I’ll update the post now, thanks!


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