Ars Technica recently published a good overview of air traffic control technology. A few weeks back I got to visit Norcal TRACON, the central hub that controls the airspace around the Bay Area, Sacramento, soon all the way to Reno. The visit was really cool, I left with a real respect for the skills of the controllers. Also impressed by the technology. Relatively simple but highly customized user interface for the main radar scope display with lots of good human factors design. And similarly simple-but-customized auxiliary information displays, communications, etc. It all seemed very functional.
When I was first learning to fly the controllers intimidated the heck out of me. They were literally the Voice of Authority, they were speaking a special language, they were interrupting my concentration, and I was afraid I'd say something dumb and embarass myself. I'm entirely over that now. A key experience was at Palo Alto with a trainee controller in the tower. I was practicing landings and the tower kept screwing up, at one point even clearing me to taxi on to a runway someone was landing on! No danger: the supervisor immediately corrected the clearance and I wasn't going to taxi into the airplane I could see, anyway. But it was all a good lesson that the controllers are people too and that they're there to help me, not enforce regulations. You also get to know voices and they're quite friendly and helpful when able. It's a good relationship.
ATC has been in the news lately with the story of a controller letting his kids give instructions on the radio. It's been way blown out of proportion, I can't imagine there was any conceivable threat to safety. But there's appearances to maintain and apparently will be hell to pay for a father showing kids his pride in his work. It's a shame: one of the things the TRACON guys told me was they're having a very hard time training new controllers. All the folks hired in 1981 after Reagan busted the union are reaching mandatory retirement age. They're trying to recruit more controllers and accelerate training, but it's not working out as well as they need. After this mess the ATC job must just look all the less appealing. I have absolute trust in the controllers who have helped me, they deserve a little slack and the ability to exercise their own judgment.