How does air traffic control work?

Our air traffic controllers direct the aircraft under their control, from take-off to landing. This applies to both civil and military flights. This type of cooperation is unique in the world. DFS also supports pilots who fly under visual flight rules. 

air traffic controllers in the tower

Air traffic controllers 

DFS air traffic controllers ensure that flights are conducted in a safe, orderly and expeditious manner. They make sure that there is always sufficient separation between aircraft. Air traffic controllers work in radar control centres and in control towers.  

The air traffic controllers in control towers manage what happens on the apron, on the runways and in the surrounding airspace. These tower controllers
ensure the smooth conduct of traffic at the aerodrome. They coordinate the aircraft which are taxiing, taking off and landing by radiotelephony. They inform pilots about the departure procedures and issue take-off clearances. Tower controllers always have direct visual contact with the aircraft. At night and in conditions of low visibility, such as fog, they are supported by ground radar. 

The air traffic controllers in the radar control 
, on the other hand, only see aircraft as symbols on their radar screens. In total, DFS has four such centres: in Langen, Bremen, Munich and Karlsruhe. All pilots flying under instrument flight rules (IFR) are controlled by the air traffic controllers working in these control centres. Lower airspace, up to around 7,500 metres, is monitored from Langen, Bremen and Munich. The colleagues in Karlsruhe have an eye on upper airspace.

How does air traffic control work?

Every day, several thousand flights take place in German airspace under instrument flight rules (IFR). When flying under instrument flight rules, pilots do not fly by sight, but orientate themselves using the instruments in the cockpit, and follow the instructions of air traffic control. Air traffic controllers monitor aircraft from take-off to landing and ensure that they always have sufficient safety distance from each other (known as separation) along the entire flight route. To ensure this, DFS operates a large number of technical facilities for surveillance, navigation and radio communication.


German airspace is divided into so-called flight information regions (FIR), which are assigned to radar control centres. The individual flight information regions of the control centres, in turn, are subdivided into different sectors. Each sector is controlled by a team of two air traffic controllers: the radar controller and the coordinator. While the radar controller monitors the radar screen and issues instructions and clearances to the pilot via radiotelephony, the coordinator communicates with the adjacent sectors. Their tasks include the coordination of transfer levels for inbound and outbound traffic. They also obtain relevant information from neighbouring sectors and support the radar controller. After all, four eyes see better than two. 

Area controllers ensure sufficient separation between aircraft. They establish minimum vertical separation of 1,000 feet (approximately 300 meters) and minimum horizontal separation of between 2.5 and 8 nautical miles (4.6 to 14.8 kilometres) between aircraft. If, however, pilots fly under visual flight rules (VFR), they are responsible for maintaining separation from other aircraft themselves. Their flight is not controlled by DFS and they may only use specific airspaces.

airplane window view

FIS controllers at work

Air traffic management 

In addition to the air traffic controllers, other specialists work at DFS to ensure safe air traffic: 

Flight data specialists monitor the flight plans of all controlled flights within an airspace, known as a sector. When air traffic controllers receive change requests from an aircraft crew regarding routing or level, flight data specialists modify the flight plans
accordingly and forward the information to other cooperation partners, such as neighbouring sectors. Reasons for flight plan changes are, for example, difficult weather situations or emergencies. 

FIS specialists play an important role in air safety. The flight information service (FIS) of DFS provides pilots with information during their flight. This information is used by pilots who fly under visual flight rules (VFR). These pilots are not controlled by air traffic controllers. FIS can be reached on designated radiotelephony frequencies in controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Langen is the responsible control centre. The tasks of the FIS specialists include, for
example, providing targeted weather information to pilots who have called in on a frequency, or assisting them with navigation. However, FIS does not establish separation. Pilots flying under VFR are obliged to do this themselves. 

AIS officers from our Aeronautical Information Service (AIS) support pilots in preparing for a flight. For example, they receive and process flight plans. All DFS AIS officers work at the AIS Centre in Langen. 


Tornado jet flying overhead

Civil-military integration 

DFS has been responsible for handling both civil as well as regional military air traffic in German airspace since its foundation in 1993. To this end, military personnel were integrated into DFS to enable effective and efficient cooperation in all areas of the air navigation services. 

DFS Academy

training in classroom

We train our operational staff at our own Air Navigation Services Academy. The student air traffic controllers learn everything they need for their future profession, from navigation and meteorology to radiotelephony procedures and aviation English. They are taught by experienced air traffic control professionals.

Practical exercises are a vital part of the training. Our modern simulators perfectly replicate the working environment in towers and control centres. The student air traffic controllers can apply what they have learned in these simulators. This is followed seamlessly by the practical part of the training, which takes place in the future workplace.

The DFS Air Navigation Services Academy enjoys an excellent reputation beyond Germany. Air navigation service providers in other countries also use our expertise and technology for the initial and continuing training of their air traffic controllers.