No, it's not the pilot.

By Michelle Darrisaw
faa air traffic controller black and white photo
Credit: PhotoQuest / Contributor/Getty Images

Before you ever board the plane, there's someone working behind the scenes to ensure you land safely at your destination. This person acts as sort of a co-pilot, but they never leave their command post on the grounds. Yet, he or she knows every minute detail of your flight and the aircraft you're flying on—right down to the altitude, weather, fuel level, and the emergency evacuation plans in the event of a disaster.

Ever heard your pilot announce a change in course mid-flight? You should know that decision wasn't made in the cockpit. The directive came through to the pilot from someone located in the airline's headquarters 30,000 miles below and far away from the terminal. Yes, the other unsung hero in the sky we're referring to here is the flight operations officer or flight dispatcher—not to be confused with the air traffic controller.

Traffic controllers are the people you typically see in aviation-themed films staring at radar screens and talking to pilots about when to land, taxi, and takeoff. Dispatchers, on the other hand, are the smart and talented men and women who map out flight paths, considering every possible scenario that could happen during the flight. Dispatchers actually start creating the flight plan hours before the plane is fueled and loaded.

Not only do flight dispatchers receive much of the same training as pilots, but they also have to take the same exams and fly a required amount of hours to earn the necessary credentials. Dispatchers are also well-versed in meteorology and weather patterns. Why? Well, for starters, the biggest part of their job is determining how inclement weather could affect departure times, fuel needs, and altitude. Rounding out their myriad responsibilities, flight dispatchers have to account for emergencies and holding patterns, as well as communicate with the airline, crew, and maintenance teams at all times.

Here's a challenge for you: If your Christmas getaway involves flying, pay close attention to the pilot as he or she enters the gate. You'll notice the pilot picking up a stack of papers at the ticket counter. Those papers contain vital information and flight plans compiled by—yep, you guessed it— the dispatcher. And all those hours spent logging and tweaking operational plans, emergencies, and possible circumstances is done to guarantee that the aircraft's passengers, crew, and pilot have a comfortable and secure flight.

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Armed with this new information, you can think of the pilot and air traffic controller as the people who safely deliver you to your destination, whereas the flight dispatcher is the one who gives them the necessary tools and resources to do so.