How do airports work?

A smooth take-off and landing requires the utmost synchronisation between teams on the ground and in the air

An airport has two main component parts: the airfield and the terminal. The terminal is the part with security checks and luggage processing. It’s the area we, as passengers, are most familiar with as we wait patiently to board our flights. But once you leave the terminal to board your plane, you’ll see the airfield; a complex series of runways, ramps and air traffic control systems that enable your plane to take off safely. It takes teamwork, attention to detail and advanced technology to keep everything running smoothly. The crucial part of the airfield is the runway. In the days of early aviation, pilots could land almost anywhere – they’d come down from the skies with a bit of a bump, but their aircraft were slow and lightweight enough to land in a field or on a beach. Today, a modern runway is built to withstand a tremendous amount of force; with a 300- or 400-ton aircraft touching down at about 250 kilometres per hour, the structure has to be almost invincible. They are designed to be elastic, with reinforced mesh between layers of concrete or asphalt to distribute the load.

Air traffic control teams coordinate all the takeoffs and landings to make sure all flights start and finish safely. With some airports managing over 2,500 flights a day, this is no easy feat. While technology provides operators with crash warning systems and advanced cockpit display systems using GPS, traffic sensors and NASA software, it’s the work of air traffic control to prevent incidents on the ground. With around 10,000 planes in the skies around the world at any one time, pilots and air traffic controllers have to cooperate like a well-oiled machine.


 This article was originally published in How It Works issue 113, written by Charlie Evans

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