To prevent collisions, ATC enforces traffic separation rules, which ensure each aircraft maintains a minimum amount of empty space around it at all times. Many aircraft also have collision avoidance systems, which provide additional safety by warning pilots when other aircraft get too close.
In many countries, ATC provides services to all private, military, and commercial aircraft operating within its airspace. Depending on the type of flight and the class of airspace, ATC may issue instructions that pilots are required to obey, or advisories (known as flight information in some countries) that pilots may, at their discretion, disregard. The pilot in command is the final authority for the safe operation of the aircraft and may, in an emergency, deviate from ATC instructions to the extent required to maintain safe operation of their aircraft.
Pursuant to requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), ATC operations are conducted either in the English language or the language used by the station on the ground. In practice, the native language for a region is normally used; however, the English language must be used upon request.
In 1920, Croydon Airport, London was the first airport in the world to introduce air traffic control.
In the United States, air traffic control developed three divisions. The first of air mail radio stations (AMRS) was created in 1922 after World War I when the U.S. Post Office began using techniques developed by the Army to direct and track the movements of reconnaissance aircraft. Over time, the AMRS morphed into flight service stations. Today's flight service stations do not issue control instructions, but provide pilots with many other flight related informational services. They do relay control instructions from ATC in areas where flight service is the only facility with radio or phone coverage. The first airport traffic control tower, regulating arrivals, departures and surface movement of aircraft at a specific airport, opened in Cleveland in 1930. Approach/departure control facilities were created after adoption of radar in the 1950s to monitor and control the busy airspace around larger airports. The first air route traffic control center, which directs the movement of aircraft between departure and destination was opened in Newark, NJ in 1935, followed in 1936 by Chicago and Cleveland.