So you think you have a stressful job, huh? Try this: Sit in a dimly lit room staring at a screen trying to keep a bunch of dots representing the lives of hundreds of people in metal tubes flying above the earth from hitting each other or flying into cumulo-granite clouds (better known as mountains) or thunderstorms. Now, do all that with ever changing weather, congested airspace and other distractions happening simultaneously and you have the job consistently ranked as the most stressful job in the world: Air Traffic Controller. But, how does it all work? Well, let's take you thru a typical airline flight so you can see the lots of different types of controllers that will work with your pilots to get you safely to your destination.
Well before you've gotten up close and personal with your friendly TSA agent, your pilot or their dispatchers have already filed a flight plan with the FAA computers. After some work by FAA planners, the plane's route info gets sent as a strip of information to every controller responsible for handling that flight. Literally a paper printout that gets put in a holder and stacked and moved around on a board next to the controller and sometimes handed from controller to controller like a high stakes game of Jenga.
On to the fun stuff. While you are trying to stow a carry on the size of a small Volkswagen and are putting your stuff on the middle seat thinking that will make nobody want to sit there, your pilots are getting their route assignment sent to their onboard computer or are using the radio to call a "Clearance Delivery" controller who verbally gives them their route, altitudes, etc. Clearance Delivery may also work out alternate routes if necessary.
Now, you get going. You're all strapped in and have dutifully shut off all your portable electronic devices. The pilot now calls a "Ground" controller who clears the plane to push back from the gate and taxi up to but not onto the runway.
Next comes the "Tower" controller. That guy makes a phone call to the guys controlling the planes in the air to make sure they have room for your plane in the air and once he gets the OK, he clears the plane for takeoff and within seconds, your plane is hurtling down the runway and into the air.
Off to departure. Seconds after you leave the ground, the tower controller hands your plane off to the departure (sometimes referred to as TRACON or RAPCON) controllers. Their job is to quickly find your plane on their radar screen and get the plane from the "terminal area" (think city streets) into what's referred to as the "en route structure" (think highways). These guys will "vector" (tell the pilots to climb, turn, descend) a plane with the goal of getting the plane on to the route assigned to them by the Clearance Delivery guy.
Just about the time you get your iPod cranking, your plane gets handed off to a "Center" controller. Center controllers handle the majority of your flight. These guys get your plane up to your cruising altitude so you can get a bag containing exactly 3.5 peanuts and some lukewarm coffee. These are typically the guys working to get you the smoothest altitude. They keep planes spaced properly for cruise flight often times by asking the pilots to fly at specified speeds so nobody has to turn or change altitude.
When you're ready to land, everything basically happens in reverse except the "departure" controllers become "approach" controllers.
Seems nice and simple, right? A walk in the park, you say. Throw in some congestion or nasty weather and, trust me, these guys earn their pay and then some. As big as the sky is, space is more limited than you think. In fact, the next time you are sitting at home and you hear a severe thunderstorm rumble on in, go to liveatc.net and listen in to what's going on in the city above your head. When the chips are on the table and a huge line of thunderstorms is in the area, it is truly amazing to hear controllers and pilots work together to keep things moving along smoothly.
It's a job that's part skill, part nerves of steel and part being crazy enough to want to be an air traffic controller but make no mistake about it, these dedicated professionals are every bit as integral to the safety of your flight as the pilots.