Air Traffic Control and Flight Paths 101

As the owner and operator of Canada’s civil air navigation system, NAV CANADA tracks and guides aircraft from all over the world safely through 18 million square kilometres of Canadian airspace. NAV CANADA’s highly trained air traffic controllers follow well-established international standards and use advanced automated systems to track and manage air traffic. NAV CANADA develops flight paths that adhere to strict design rules and safety standards determined by Transport Canada. Its air traffic controllers also assign runways at Pearson by considering winds, weather, capacity, and the preferential runway system to safely and efficiently manage the flow of aircraft flying into, out of and across controlled airspace. There are 450 NAV CANADA employees supporting Toronto Pearson operations with 50 Air Traffic Controllers working out of the Toronto control tower.

While the air traffic control tower itself is a widely recognized symbol of air navigation services, many air traffic controllers — in fact more than half — work in one of NAV CANADA’s seven area control centers located across Canada, managing traffic flying between airports.

What are flight paths?

Flight paths are made up of routes between ‘waypoints’ for airplanes to follow. They are like markers in the sky that can be defined by geographic coordinates or associated with existing physical navigational aids, route intersections or fixes. Waypoints are named using a five-letter all-capital word like VERKO or ERBUS. This system helps ensure that the name is distinct and easy to pronounce no matter what language the flight crews and controllers speak. Waypoints are often used to indicate a change in direction, speed or altitude along a portion of the flight. Flight crews use the waypoints along their flight path to confirm their position.

Canadian Airspace

Canadian airspace is divided into seven flight information regions, each managed by a regional hub known as an Area Control Centre, which is responsible for any controlled airspace in the region outside of tower control zones. At the Toronto Area Control Centre, there’s about 315 air traffic controllers managing most of Ontario and some of Manitoba. They manage traffic using surveillance and communications.

Who else works with NAV CANADA at Pearson?

Transport Canada is ultimately responsible for the safety of operations at all Canadian airports, which is why they work so closely with NAV CANADA and airport authorities.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) (that’s us!) has a ground lease with Transport Canada with the mandate to develop, manage and operate Pearson efficiently and effectively.

You can learn more about the basics of air navigation on the NAV Canada website.

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