Flight Dispatcher Vs. Air Traffic Controller

We all want a smooth and safe day of airline travel, and a lot of that depends on the expertise of flight dispatchers and air traffic controllers. Dispatchers plan the timing of flights, while controllers manage aircraft traffic, on the runway and in the sky.

Comparing Flight Dispatchers to Air Traffic Controllers

Flight dispatchers and air traffic controllers manage the efficiency and safety of our airline travel. Flight dispatchers look at flight size, weather, travel time, and other areas to plan the timing of arrivals and departures. Air traffic controllers work from the airports, directing traffic on the ground and updating pilots with new information during their flights. Other similarities and differences are discussed below.

Job Title Education Requirements Median Salary* Job Growth (2016-2026)*
Flight Dispatcher Bachelor's Degree or certification from specialty program $49,401 (2018)** 3% (for all air traffic controllers)
Air Traffic Controller Associate's or Bachelor's Degree from AT-CTI Program; pass Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery; complete FAA Academy training course $124,540 (2017) 3%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **PayScale.Com

Responsibilities of Flight Dispatchers vs. Air Traffic Controller

Both flight dispatchers and air traffic controllers must be knowledgable about a large set of variables and able to handle stress in a calm and thoughtful manner. A flight dispatcher's role is all about timing. These professionals schedule arrivals and departures, and must make updates when unexpected events delay or cancel flights. Air traffic controllers direct aircraft on the ground, at airports, and during flights. They manage the traffic to ensure an uneventful day of travel and relay any new information or changes directly to the pilots.

Flight Dispatcher

It is the duty of a flight dispatcher to manage the scheduling of an airline's flights. This involves a great deal of planning and using up-to-the-minute analysis. Variables to be considered include flight paths, airport layouts, flight size, travel time, and weather. If there is a delay or cancellation, it is up to the flight dispatchers to ensure that flight times are updated and revised quickly. Dispatchers must be comfortable working in stressful situations, sometimes at unusual hours of the day. A bachelor's degree or specialized certification is generally required.

Job responsibilities of a flight dispatcher include:

  • Stay in communication with flight crews to give them pertinent updates
  • Manage flight logs and other documentation
  • Make sure all safety regulations are maintained
  • Be aware of regional issues that may effect travel, such as nearby events and the availability of hotels

Air Traffic Controller

Air traffic controllers oversee and direct aircraft traffic in the air and on the ground. Their primary responsibility is to direct and keep traffic flowing in an orderly manner. This direction of aircraft includes relaying information during take-offs and landings, arranging traffic on the runway, and using radars to inform pilots of any potential issues mid-flight. Being calm under pressure and multi-tasking are vital, as air traffic controllers must oversee many aircrafts at once, all of which are at differing points in their journeys. There are a couple different ways to become an air traffic controller, including earning a degree from an AT-CTI program directly or obtaining a bachelor's degree and three years of work experience in a related field. All candidates must be US citizens and then pass the Air Traffic Controller Specialists Skills Assessment Battery (ATSA), as well as complete an FAA training course. After obtaining a position, controllers must undergo yearly physicals, performance tests, and drug screenings.

Job responsibilities of an air traffic controller include:

  • Relay information to response teams during emergencies
  • Communicate information to other traffic control centers
  • Train and oversee the work of less experienced team members
  • Update pilots on weather and any unexpected changes to the flight plan

Related Careers

Some flight dispatchers get their start by studying the weather. If this sounds interesting, you may enjoy learning more about becoming a meteorologist. If instead of being an air traffic controller you'd rather be on the other end of the line, you may want to learn more about becoming an airline pilot.


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