Why AI Can’t Replace Air Traffic Controllers

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Air Traffic Control Aviation Safety AI in Aviation Airport Operations Human Expertise

Yet though AI has the potential to enhance air traffic control, an aviation safety expert explains why humans will continue to play a crucial role in managing the country’s airports and airspace.

A small aircraft whose cockpit indicators can’t confirm that the plane’s landing gear is extended receives a radio call from an air traffic controller after hours of routine operations. In order to visually inspect the plane’s landing gear, the controller sets up for the pilot to fly close to the tower. Everything seems fine. The controller informs the pilot,” It appears that your gear is over. “The aircraft carefully circles again to land after the controller issues a call for the airport fire trucks to be prepared in case. Scenes like this frequently occur. Everything in the air traffic control system must adhere to the strictest safety standards, but not everything goes as planned.

Contrast this with the still-science fiction idea of intelligent artificial intelligence “pilots” flying automatic aircraft, complete with an autonomous air traffic control system that can control aircraft just as easily as routers can stop internet data packets.

New technologies that implement components of the air traffic control system are constantly being developed by researchers, but they can just carry out the tasks that were planned out during the design process, so they cannot be changed. As the aforementioned scenario shows, humans are probably going to continue to be an essential northern part of air traffic control for quite some time.


“The main purpose of the air traffic control system is to prevent a collision involving aircraft,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s basic guidance on the duty of airport controllers. Additionally, air traffic controllers are responsible for” a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of aircraft” and other safety-related services, such as assisting pilots in avoiding mountains, other hazardous terrain, hazardous weather, to the extent that they can.

The duties of air traffic controllers vary. In order to ensure that they are properly spaced aside, tower controllers provide the nearby control that allows aircraft to take off and land. Additionally, they offer ground control, directing aircraft to taxis and informing pilots of flight plans and any possible safety issues the day before takeoff. Some displays help tower controllers, but most of them look inside from the towers and communicate with pilots over radio. Surface surveillance displays at larger airports with FAA controller staff show controllers the aircraft and other vehicles parked on the airfield.

On the other hand, approach and en route controllers are seated in front of huge displays in silent, dark spaces. They use radio to communicate with pilots. Their displays display the locations of aircraft along with important information about the routes and boundaries of the airspace.

The 21 en route control centers in the United States oversee traffic that usually travels at higher speeds and altitudes because it is between and above airports.

After takeoff, controllers at approach control facilities move departing aircraft out of native control and into en route airspace. Similar to this, they line up arriving aircraft with the landing approach and hand them off to tower controllers after taking them from en route airspace.

At each display, a controller controls all of the traffic in that particular sector. Sectors can range in size from a few cubic miles, which are used to sequence aircraft landing at busy airports, to en route sectors that are more than 30 000 cubic kilometers (125,045 cubic km), where and when there are few aircraft flying. A second or even third controller may help if a sector becomes active, or the sector may be divided into two, with the second being managed by another display and controller team.


Air traffic controllers work a demanding job and frequently experience fatigue and information overload. The aging technology and staffing shortages that have caused air traffic controllers to work overtime have come to light as a result of people concern over an increasing number of nearby calls. These problems can be resolved with the aid of innovative technologies.

New technologies are being incorporated into the air traffic control system in a number of ways. Controllers are receiving more and more accurate information thanks to the FAA’s Green air transportation system initiative.

The controllers ‘ displays at first merely displayed radar tracking. They can then access all of the information contained within the en route automation modernization system regarding each flight. This system combines radar, weather reports, flight plans, and flight histories with automated position reports from aircraft via automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast.

Systems give controllers advice on how to arrange aircraft into soft traffic flows and alert them to potential conflicts between aircraft or aircraft that are very close to higher ground or structures. FAA Chief Operating Officer Timothy Arel stated that the administration is creating or improving a number of air traffic control systems in testimony to the U.S. Senate on November 9, 2023, regarding airport safety.

Air traffic flow between cities and air traffic controller behavior are just a few examples of how researchers are using machine learning to analyze and forecast aspects of the field.


In the form of fresh aircraft types, new technology can also significantly alter air traffic control. For instance, current regulations primarily restrict uncrewed aircraft from flying above ground and away from airports at a height of 400 feet ( 122 meters ). Second responders, news organizations, surveyors, delivery services, and hobbyists all use these drones.

A traffic control system for drones and another uncrewed aircraft is being developed under the direction of NASA and the FAA.

Nevertheless, some new uncrewed aircraft manufacturers have suggested using handled airspace. Some want their planes to fly on predetermined routes and have voice radio conversations with air traffic controllers as usual. These include Xwing and Reliable Robotics, both of which are attempting to automate the little cargo aircraft Cessna Caravan.

Others are focusing on novel business models, such as innovative air mobility and the idea of compact, highly automated energy aircraft, like electric air taxis. These would necessitate handling air traffic using radically different routes and procedures.


An aircraft that needs special handling can interfere with an air traffic controller’s routine. This could involve handling clinical flights with priority or Air Force One in an emergency. The duty and freedom to modify how they manage their airspace are given to controllers.

AI’s capabilities are a bad match for the demands of the front line of air traffic control. People anticipate that air traffic will always be the safest sophisticated, high-tech system. It meets this standard by following rules when they are realistic, which AI is capable of doing, and by adapting and using good judgment whenever something unexpected happens or a new operation is put into place—a notable flaw in today’s AI.

In fact, controllers ‘ contributions to safety are greatest when conditions are at their worst—when they are figuring out how to handle aircraft with serious issues, airport crises, or common airspace closures due to security concerns or infrastructure failures.

Controllers also don’t pilot the aircraft. They interact and communicate with other people to direct the aircraft, so it is ultimately their duty to work as a team—another notable AI weakness.

The ability for AI to analyze the big data records of previous air traffic operations in search of, for example, more effective flight routes excites me the most as an engineer and designer. However, if there is a problem, I’m delighted to hear the controller’s calm voice on the radio assisting me in landing swiftly and securely.

Viktor Musil

Victor Musil, pen name for Edouard Py, advocates for inclusive, people-centered city development. His work underscores the importance of ethical considerations and equitable access, shaping the discourse on urban innovation worldwide.

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