What goes up must come down. And as an air traffic control specialist, Christina Munro makes sure that’s exactly what happens. At the Southern California TRACON, one of the busiest air traffic facilities in the world, Munro is part of a team that handles around 2,200 flights a day. In a dark control room, they guide planes that are departing or arriving at San Diego, Long Beach, Burbank, John Wayne, Ontario, and Los Angeles airports, as well as the region’s general aviation and military air stations.
Every flight is handled by four different kinds of controllers: The ground controller directs the plane as it taxis. The local controller, aka the tower, clears the plane for takeoff or landing, and guides it within a five-mile radius of the airport.
Beyond that is when a TRACON departure or approach controller like Munro comes in. She directs planes into safe corridors as they climb to or descend from cruising altitude. Finally, she passes them on to separate “en route centers,” with controllers who level and track the plane for most of its flight. It’s a unique art form that can require creating plans C and D when A and B fail. For instance, the airplanes coming from LAX, Long Beach, and John Wayne all come in converging on the same flight path, and it’s up to Munro to put them in an orderly flow that maintains 5 miles of separation between each one.
“We’re not hired for our everyday work,” she says, “but for what we can do when something goes wrong.” And most days, nothing goes wrong. But those rare close calls stick with Munro and reinforce the importance of what she—and 15,000 others across the country—do every day. “I feel very lucky,” she says. “The truth is, we’re here to save lives. Our number-one goal is to get everyone on the ground safely.”