October 5, 2022
Jobs in Aviation: Flight Dispatcher
AvGeek AVJobs Interview

Jobs in Aviation: Flight Dispatcher

DALLAS – While the most well-known jobs in the aviation industry are Pilots and Flight Attendants, there are other job opportunities in commercial aviation. Thousands of people work every day behind the scenes to keep the industry running.

Flight Dispatchers, also known as airline dispatchers or flight operations officers, are one of those little-known but crucial behind-the-scenes specialists that help orchestrate commercial airlines worldwide. They are certified professionals responsible for flight planning.

They also have an important amount of responsibility for the operations, making sure the flight plan is the best option depending on various elements.

To learn more about the job, Airways had the chance to speak with Catherine Jackson, the President of the Airline Dispatchers Federation (ADF). She has been working as a flight dispatcher for Southwest Airlines (WN) for over 15 years.

Her answers allow us to better understand the role and the career of a flight dispatcher and give us a deeper insight into this crucial and unique job in aviation.

Photo: American Airlines

The Role of a Flight Dispatcher

Noam Ismaaili: Hello and welcome ! Could you first introduce yourself and explain your role as a flight dispatcher?

Catherine Jackson: The short answer is that an Aircraft Dispatcher is an FAA-certified airman, jointly responsible with the PIC for the preflight planning, delay, and dispatch release of a flight in compliance with FAA regulations.

Photo: Catherine Jackson

How do you prepare a flight plan using new technologies?

While technology certainly helps to build the foundation of a flight plan, there are many factors and inputs that a Dispatcher will consider and apply to any given release.

Things like weather, turbulence, aircraft performance, mechanical limitations, air traffic control initiatives, airport capacity, take-off, en route and destination alternates, contingency planning, passenger accommodation, and airline economics are all considered in crafting each and every flight plan.

Do you need strong meteorological skills in order to become a good flight dispatcher? How do you choose the most economical route for flights?

Much of our work revolves around the weather. Strong meteorological skills are important to be able to understand and analyze a wide variety of weather products and tools.

Winds have the greatest impact when selecting the most economical route, but safety choices considering other elements such as weather hazards, turbulence, and air traffic control factors will take precedence over economic route selection.

How do you share the responsibility for the operation of the flight with the Captain? Do you meet at some time during flight planning?

On the best of days, on the simplest of flights, much of the Dispatcher/Pilot briefing can be accomplished through remarks included in the Dispatch Release. As the complexity of the flight and the number of contributing considerations increases, so will the level of Dispatcher to Pilot interaction.

Many types of operations require a briefing by telephone. At larger airlines, face-to-face briefings are seldom, if ever, conducted. This coordination is not restricted to the planning phase of flight. Pilots and Dispatchers must be able to communicate any changing conditions throughout all phases of flight.

There is a tremendous amount of trust between Pilots and Dispatchers and that relationship is critical to allowing for good CRM (crew resource management) and ensuring the safety of flight.

The Pilot in Command (PIC) does have to sign off on the Dispatch Release and coordinate any desired changes with the Dispatcher. Both parties must be in concurrence that the plan is the safest, most efficient way to operate that flight that day before the flight departs.

Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

The Life of a Flight Dispatcher

How many flight dispatchers are needed to run an airline?

While there is no specific formula, the number of Dispatchers required to operate each airline is dependent upon the number and complexity of flights operated. As a point of reference, the largest US carriers each have 400-500 Dispatchers.

What do you think about the future of your job? Do you fear Flight Dispatchers could be replaced one day by computers?

Aircraft Dispatchers make a significant contribution to aviation safety and the success of our airlines. Technology increases our ability to make those meaningful contributions.

Certainly, the job will evolve and change as technology advances, as it has since the beginning. But in my experience, technology has only proved to enhance our value.

How much do you work every week? Do you have lots of holidays?

The vast majority of US Airline Dispatchers are unionized employees. There are some work limitations defined by the FARs, but work rules and schedules vary across the different groups. Generally, schedules, vacations, and pay improve with seniority.

How often do you work during the weekend, at night, or on holidays?

Aviation is a 24/7 operation, so work schedules will include shifts that cover the mornings, afternoons, overnights, weekends, and holidays. That needs to be an accepted condition if you are considering a career in aviation operations. In your early career, you will have limited input into your schedule, but as seniority increases, you are more able to choose your preferences.

Is this job paid well?

This job can pay very well. Much like Pilot wages, compensation at major airlines is greater than that at smaller, regional carriers.

How can you evolve during your career as a flight dispatcher?

There are many opportunities within Dispatch offices. In addition to Line Dispatchers (those actively responsible for flights), most offices will have Dispatchers performing specialized duties, including coordination with Air Traffic Control, equipment routing, network integrity, charter operations, and other technical support capacities.

Some will move into management or pursue other opportunities but the vast majority of Dispatchers will enjoy a fulfilling, rewarding career and retire from the Dispatch position.

Do you have special advantages with your airline?

Most careers in aviation will include flight benefits. Typically, employees can fly for free on a standby, space-available basis on their own carrier. Some employers will offer discounted confirmed tickets. Most airlines have agreements offering deeply discounted space-available tickets to employees of other airlines.

Photo: Ian Marshall/Airways

Career as an Airline Dispatcher

According to you, what are the qualities needed to become a Flight Dispatcher?

Aircraft Dispatchers are problem solvers. We must take into account a wide variety of contributing factors to plan and execute a number of flights each shift.

Being able to anticipate and prioritize are critical skills for success. We must be able to manage our workload to accommodate the unexpected be it unforecasted weather, aircraft or passenger emergencies, or to provide backup and support for a colleague.

Dispatchers must have good situational awareness, be able to juggle many issues at once and be flexible enough to pivot with continuously changing priorities.

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the job?

The primary advantage of this field for me is that it has provided me with a rewarding career where every day presents new challenges and opportunities to provide safe, efficient travel for our customers. Another tremendous benefit is the quality of life this job affords.

If you are not willing to work an atypical schedule, that would certainly be a disadvantage. Also, Dispatch offices are usually located at the Airline’s headquarters which will limit the number of places you can live. Of course, many Dispatchers use their flight benefits to commute.

Can you tell us how you became a Flight Dispatcher?

I did not have an aviation career on my horizon until I started taking flying lessons. It was then the aviation bug bit me quite hard. I decided I wanted to find an aviation career to support my recreational flying. With some research and good guidance, I discovered the world of Aircraft Dispatch. I was awarded a scholarship from ADF to obtain my certificate in 2001.

At the time, Southwest Airlines only hired internal candidates for the Dispatch position, and I knew that’s where I wanted to work. So, with my newly acquired certificate in hand, I started applying for any possible position. I was hired into Ground Ops in KBWI, where I worked for 4 years before I was offered a job as a Dispatcher.

Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways

How to Become a Flight Dispatcher

What are the studies a flight dispatcher usually needs to do before joining an airline?

Because we are such a niche profession that few know about, people come to Dispatch through a wide variety of avenues.

Some started flying, others were pursuing careers in air traffic control, and some were mechanics or meteorologists or held another position at an airline before they learned of this opportunity.

While some prior knowledge of basic aviation or related fields would be beneficial, it is not required prior to enrolling at a Dispatch school.

How does the FAA dispatch license work? Is it the same in every country?

In order to qualify to take the exams to obtain a certificate, you must attend a certified dispatch school and meet the education requirements. Those requirements can vary depending upon prior experience. There will be a written, multiple-choice exam that is essentially the same as the ATP written exam.

Then you will sit with an examiner for oral and practical exams. Once you have a certificate, you are eligible for hire. Your employer will have an established course of training that will include classroom and on-the-job training before you are checked out and able to exercise your certificate.

Many countries are not required by regulation to have Aircraft Dispatchers. They will often have people performing similar functions without the same regulatory responsibility.

However, several countries have recognized the added level of safety and the benefit of additional oversight a Dispatcher provides and have elected to have the people performing those functions receive the same training and certification even if they are not exercising the same authority required by the FAA.

Do you have any advice for someone who would want to become a Flight Dispatcher?

I think it’s the greatest job ever so I would encourage you to find a school that meets your needs, secure that certificate and get your resume ready!

We are nearing the end of this interview. Could you give us more information about the ADF? What is its role and scope of action?

The Airline Dispatchers Federation is a professional organization that supports, protects, and promotes the Dispatch function. We are staffed by volunteers from the Dispatch community who share a passion for our proud profession. ADF Members serve on various FAA and industry committees and working groups to provide the Dispatch perspective to a wide range of initiatives.

ADF is hopeful to host our Annual Safety Summit this fall after a two-year COVID hiatus. I currently serve as the President of the organization with the primary focus of maintaining our involvement in the aviation community and encouraging the next generation of Aircraft Dispatchers to become the activists that will move the profession into the future.

Alright, thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these questions!

Featured image: Delta Air Lines

Aviation enthusiast and private pilot student, I am fascinated by the aviation industry.

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