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Aircraft Dispatchers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?

Airline operations is a complex task, requiring may different people working together to get every plane pushed and on to its final destination. Pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and ground personnel are the obvious key players in the operation, but there is one vital individual required that many people seem to be unaware of – the dispatcher.

What Is a Dispatcher?

Dispatchers are the secret ingredient of the operation who ensure that each flight is planned, routed, and flying safely and legally. These individuals have specialized licenses that make them experts in flight following and planning. Their responsibilities include creating flight plans, calculating fuel loads, following part 121 federal regulations, monitoring weather, winds, and other conditions that may affect the flight, communicating with the flight crew to keep them up-to-date with any changing conditions, and maintaining operational control.

Dispatchers are on the ground, normally situated at an airline’s headquarters in Operational Control Centers (OCC). Most airlines these days have done extensive human factors and ergonomics studies to determine the best working environment for dispatchers, including dimmed, colored lighting, noise considerations, and room setup. Dispatchers have high stress jobs, so ergonomic conscious work conditions are imperative to a smooth operation.

What Is Operational Control?

Operational control is a term normally associated with the Pilot in Command of the aircraft, but in actuality, the dispatcher has the authority to delay and cancel flights and they have the responsibility to divert an aircraft to its alternate destination if weather conditions deteriorate at the original destination. For example, a flight may have been dispatched to Orlando with perfectly good visibility, but a few hours later an afternoon storm rolls in, making it illegal to land at the airport. The dispatcher is responsible for monitoring that weather and notifying the flight crew so they can prepare to divert to their alternate. The dispatcher will work with the crew to get them things they need, such as the new airport’s Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) and their projected fuel burn.

A single flight is a joint operation between both the flight crew and the dispatcher who all must work together to ensure each flight is legal and safe.

What Are Their Primary Roles?

Because dispatchers have a very large set of rules and regulations to follow, this article will cover very basic information to give an overview of their jobs.

  1. Flight Plans. Dispatchers create every flight plan, also known as a dispatch release, for their assigned flights. According to federal regulation 121.687, “every release must contain at least the following information:
  • Identification number of the aircraft.
  • Trip number.
  • Departure airport, intermediate stops, destination airports, and alternate airports.
  • A statement of the type of operation (e.g., IFR, VFR).
  • Minimum fuel supply.
  • For each flight dispatched as an ETOPS flight, the ETOPS diversion time for which the flight is dispatched.

Furthermore, the dispatch release must contain, or have attached to it, weather reports, available weather forecasts, or a combination thereof, for the destination airport, intermediate stops, and alternate airports, that are the latest available at the time the release is signed by the pilot in command and dispatcher. It may include any additional available weather reports or forecasts that the pilot in command or the aircraft dispatcher considers necessary or desirable.”

Additionally, crew names, NOTAMs, and mode of navigation, or the route, will be on the release.

  1. Flight Following. As stated earlier, dispatchers are expected to follow each of their flights and update the flight crew with changing information. This includes watching the weather condition at the departure and arrival airports and ensuring that minimums are legal for the aircraft to take-off and land.
  1. Fuel Load. Dispatchers are responsible for ensuring the aircraft is dispatched with the appropriate level of fuel for each flight, including alternate fuel and reserve fuel. Weather along the route, potential diversions, and potential holds must also be taken into consideration.
  1. Alternates. An alternate is required to be on the dispatch release if the weather at the destination airport does not follow the 1-2-3 rule. The rule states that the airport must have at least a 2000 ft ceiling and at least 3 miles of visibility one hour before and one hour after the scheduled arrival time. If an alternate is required but does not make it onto the release and the flight departs, then the flight is considered “illegal” until the release is amended, which can be done en route electronically.
  1. Minimum equipment list (MEL) items. MELs typically have procedures associated with them that the crew must conduct prior to a flight. All MELs must be included on the flight plan and if one is added or removed, then the dispatcher must track that and update the release as appropriate. If an aircraft departs with an incorrect MEL, then the flight has departed illegally.
  1. ACARS. Dispatchers must communicate with the flight crews throughout the flight. The most common way is via the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or simply, ACARS. It is a messaging system that allows pilots and dispatchers to essentially “text” each other and is an easy, efficient way for flight crews to get fuel numbers, reroutes, weather conditions, and other important information.

Why Are They Important?

Not only do dispatchers do a lot of the leg work that gets each flight ready for departure, they focus on efficiency, safety, and legality. Without their set of eyes, the pilots would be blind to conditions unknown to them or outside of their control. Dispatchers keep aircraft out of the path of bad weather, help coordinate emergency situations, and help relieve the pilots of their workload. They are true workhorses of the airline industry.

How to Become a Dispatcher

Dispatchers may have difficult jobs, but it can be extremely rewarding. To be qualified to work as a dispatcher at a U.S. airline, individuals must be 23 years old, read, write, and speak English, go through an extensive training program and accumulate at least 200 hours of instruction on specific topics, and pass FAA mandated tests, including a knowledge test, flight planning test, and oral exam.

Typical programs consist of five or six weeks of classroom training that meet the 200-hour regulation. If you are a pilot or air traffic controller, you can receive a dispatch license with fewer hours as many proficiency topics overlap.

For those individuals that are working full-time but want to get their license, the Sheffield School of Aeronautics in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida offers an online course. The course must be completed within four months and the student must attend a short classroom training session before taking the FAA tests. This option is more convenient for those that cannot take extended periods of time off or want the convenience of online learning.


[Featured Image: Shutterstock]

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strickerj October 9, 2019

I could understand Southwest suing Boeing for loss of use while the 737 MAX fleet is grounded, but it strikes me as strange that the pilots’ union would have any claim to damages since Southwest hasn’t had a MAX crash. If they’re trying to claim what could have happened, that seems like a slippery slope...