Crowded skies means that even experienced pilots might suffer from air collisions because they cannot know where every airplane around them is located. The job of tracking all flights in a given airspace and informing flight crews of their progress falls on the shoulders of flight service specialists, or air traffic controllers.
Flight service specialists oversee how aircraft move and maintain a safe distance between vehicles. They clear pilots for takeoffs and landings, guide airplanes to different altitudes and speeds, and provide weather and airport updates to flight crews. They depend on radar to locate aircraft and alert airport emergency staff if they detect potential emergencies. Most direct several planes at the same time, although more than one specialist may also handle a single flight. While safety is their primary concern, specialists must also ensure flights maintain their assigned schedules.
Major airports and air spaces may divide specialists into several categories. Tower specialists are responsible for planes on the runway. They typically work from control towers. Radar approach/departure controllers make sure that planes keep a minimum distance apart in the 40-mile radius around an airport. They also guide airplanes into and out of airports, and work from terminal radar approach control centers. En-route specialists guide planes into and out of the airspaces managed by one of the 21 air route traffic control centers in the U.S. as of 2013. They receive and hand over plane control from other en-route specialists or approach/departure controllers.
Training to become a flight service specialist can come from previous experience in the Armed Forces or the Federal Aviation Administration. Otherwise, applicants must go through a two- or four-year degree in air traffic management from an FAA-approved Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative school. Applicants must then take the FAA pre-employment test. Passing allows the applicant to enroll in the FAA Academy. Upon graduation, specialists become developmental controllers at assigned facilities. They take two to four years to master their necessary duties before they can then become fully certified flight service specialists.
Flight service specialists can travel among different types of controller positions, advance to supervisor or transfer among different facilities. The job can be highly stressful and demands total concentration. Because many control towers operate round-the-clock, shifts can run during the day, evening and night through weekends and holidays. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees jobs for the profession falling by 3 percent from 2010 to 2020. This is because the FAA has hired most of the controllers it needs. Any new opportunities will come from the need to replace retiring workers.