Aircraft Dispatchers — Working Behind the Scenes

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Although they don't have the visibility or prestige of an airline captain, aircraft dispatchers are, legally, just as responsible for planning a successful airline flight as the captain. And dispatcher's get some of the airline perks, too.

Careers

George is holding a phone in his right hand. On the other end of the phone, a pilot is telling George his woes of the day -- how the weather was bad in Louisville, how lunch didn't agree with his co-pilot, and how his wife spends too much money. Between his head and his shoulder, George is balancing a second phone. On the other end of this phone, another pilot, this one sounding a bit more urgent than the first, informs George that their destination airport has closed so they will need to divert to their alternate airport. George's left hand is occupied pulling up a radar summary off of the computer. He needs to find an airport where the weather is good enough to divert this aircraft. To top it all off, a mechanic patiently taps George's shoulder in the hopes of getting his undivided attention: A plane that George has just dispatched is now returning to the gate due to a mechanical issue.

You may be asking yourself, "Who is this Aviation Superhero?" OK, OK, I do work in the field, so I may be a little biased. However, the truth of the matter is that very few aviation enthusiasts and professionals understand the world of aircraft dispatching. Hopefully, this article will not only provide you with some insight to life of an aircraft dispatcher, but also inform you of the necessary training required in obtaining aircraft dispatcher's certificate.

Aircraft Dispatcher or Flight Follower?

You may have heard the term "aircraft dispatcher" interchanged with the term "flight follower." While the job responsibilities of the aircraft dispatcher and the flight follower are almost exactly the same, there is one difference -- legality. FAR 121.395 states that domestic air carriers (the majors and the commuters) shall provide "qualified" aircraft dispatchers. "Qualified" for our purpose means "certified." FAR 121.553, which also addresses domestic air carriers, states that "the pilot in command and the aircraft dispatcher are jointly responsible for the preflight planning, delay, and the dispatch release ..." Now, FAR 121.125 states the supplemental air carriers (mainly ad-hoc cargo carriers) must have a "flight following system," including, of course, flight followers. Flight followers do not need legally require certification. FAR 121.537, which also addresses supplemental air carriers, states that "the pilot in command and the director of operations are jointly responsible for the initiation, continuation, diversion, and termination of a flight ..." This regulation goes on to say that the director of operations may delegate the functions, usually to a flight follower, but not the responsibility of the functions. This means that although flight followers perform the same job tasks as aircraft dispatchers, they are not legally responsible for the flight the way aircraft dispatchers are; the director of operations and the pilot in command share that responsibility in 121 supplemental operations.

What does all this FAR-speak mean to you? Simply stated, there are aircraft dispatchers and there are flight followers. Both jobs entail flight planning, flight plan filing, weather analysis, and flight monitoring. The major airlines and the commuter airlines are domestic carriers and, therefore, require certified aircraft dispatchers who are jointly responsible with the pilot for the safety of the flight. Most ad-hoc cargo carriers are supplemental carriers and have flight followers who, although they carry out the same duties as aircraft dispatchers, do not legally require certification and are not jointly responsible for the flight with the pilot.

A Day in the Dispatch Life

Aircraft Dispatchers

So what is a typical day like for an aircraft dispatcher or flight follower? Let's start with an aircraft dispatcher at a domestic air carrier. We'll call her Mary. Mary has been assigned to work flights in the Southeast region of the United States for her shift. Although she gets a good picture of the national (or even international, if applicable) weather, she is primarily focused on the weather in the Southeast region. She analyzes radar summaries, weather depiction charts, satellite images, and prognostic charts until she feels comfortable with the weather situation in her region. Now it's time for her to get a turnover from the previous shift. The person currently working the Southeast region gives her a rundown of all the flights as well as any unusual situations pertaining to any of the flights or to the weather. After the turnover, Mary is ready to get settled in and begin her day.

Mary has two concerns: monitoring the progress of the flights that are already en route and preparing for the flights that she must initiate. She first checks all the weather at the destination airports to which her en route planes are flying. The weather looks good at all the destination airports except for Orlando. The visibility has slowly diminished from 3 sm to 3/4 sm, with -TSRA (thunderstorms and light rain). Mary makes a mental note to watch Orlando weather closely, and begins flight planning for her future flights. In all, she will flight plan about 20 flights today. She will probably be around for the completion of about 12 of those flights, so she will turn over the other 8 flights to the dispatcher that relieves her.

For each flight, Mary has a whole list of weather questions to answer before she can complete the flight plan. First, is the departure visibility good enough for the plane to depart? If so, is the weather at the departing airport above landing minimums? If not, if the plane has a problem immediately after departure; it cannot come around and land at the airport it has just departed from. Therefore, Mary will have to list a takeoff alternate. There are several requirements for listing a takeoff alternate. Mary needs to make sure the takeoff alternate is within a certain distance from the departing airport and she needs to make sure that the takeoff alternate meets alternate minimums. Next, how is the destination airport weather? Is the weather above approach minimums for that airport? Mary notices that there is a NOTAM stating that the glideslope at the destination airport is inoperative. How does this affect the approach minimums? Does Mary need to list an alternate airport for the destination airport? If so, which airport meets destination alternate minimums? Whew, I'm tired. Get the point? I'm sure Mary is tired as well, and her day is just beginning.

After analyzing the weather and NOTAMs, Mary selects an appropriate route and altitude, and runs the flight plan calculations. Thank goodness for automation. Most domestic carriers have advanced computerized programs that select altitudes and "canned" routes based on winds aloft. However, these computerized systems, like any computerized system, are not fail-safe. Mary must still review the routing, taking into consideration any en route weather. She then files the flight plan with ATC.

Time for a breather. How is that weather doing in Orlando, by the way? Mary pulls up the current METAR for Orlando. Prognosis -- Not good. The weather is now 1/2 sm visibility and +TSRA (thunderstorms and heavy rain), and her flight is about 15 minutes out of Orlando. Mary knows there is a good chance that the aircraft won't be able to get in. She contacts the plane via ACRS (aircraft communications and reporting system) and asks them how long they can hold. Crew response -- negative on the holding. The winds aloft were stronger than forecast and the aircraft must go directly to the alternate if it cannot get into Orlando on the first try. Mary checks the current weather for Tampa, which is the alternate airport listed of the flight. All looks good in Tampa, and a plan of action is agreed upon between Mary and the pilot in command: The crew will try Orlando, and if it doesn't work out on the first try, they'll go direct to their alternate of Tampa. Don't you love it when a plan comes together? Mary does.

Mary looks at the clock. Time has flown (no pun intended). After flight planning 20 flights, monitoring a dozen more, and dealing with the Orlando weather, it is now time for Mary to turn over her flights to the next shift. And because Mary is scheduled to work more than 10 hours in the next 24 hours, she must have 8 hours off before or at the end of her 10 hours of duty. Yes, aircraft dispatches, like pilots, have rest requirements mandated by the FARs.

Flight Followers

Now let's take look at a typical day for a flight follower at a supplemental carrier. We'll call him Joe. Joe shows up to work and gets a general picture of the weather, not really focusing on a specific region. See, Joe doesn't know where or when the flights he will be initiating will be going, so he needs to have a general idea of what is going on in terms of weather. Joe gets a briefing from the previous shift. This briefing is similar to the briefing Mary received before starting her shift. Once Joe gets settled in, he does many of the same tasks as Mary -- he checks all the weather at the destination airports of his en route planes. Lucky for Joe, all destination weather looks good tonight. Unlike Mary, Joe currently does not know of any flights he must plan. He sits and waits for that urgent call from the customer, like the calm before the storm.

And then the storm hits. The customer calls Joe and informs him that they need three airplanes in the air in one hour -- destination Mexico. Joe has to answer all the same weather questions that Mary had to, taking into consideration the departure, destination, and alternate airport weather. Joe looks at the NOTAMs. Wouldn't you know it -- the one airport that the customer wants to fly into in Mexico is closed. Joe works with the customer to select another suitable airport in Mexico. Joe then selects an altitude and route for the flights and files the flight plans. The crews show up, Joe briefs them, out the door they go, and the three planes are in the air within one hour of getting the initial call from the customer. Joe sits back and sighs. The rush is over. He checks all the destination weather again -- everything is good. Looks like it's going to be quiet night for Joe.

If there is one faux pas in the world of flight followers, it's saying "Looks like it's going to be a quiet night." Sure the weather is good, but what about the other problems of aviation -- the mechanical issues? Joe receives a phone call from San Francisco AirInc. One of his planes needs to speak with him. It appears they have a pressurization problem and they now need to fly at 10,000 feet. Joe passes the phone call to maintenance control, but the problem isn't out of Joe's hands. How much fuel should be onboard the aircraft now? How far can they fly at 10,000 feet with their current fuel situation? What would be the best airport for them to land at in terms of maintenance availability? Joe's quiet night has now turned into a challenging one. He's now running sample flight plans and calling airports. He is working with the pilot to come up with a solution that is safe and economical.

Well, Joe has been at work 11 hours, and although he is scheduled to go home now, he stays and continues to work with the aircraft that has had the pressurization problem. Yep, you guessed it -- there are no duty limitations for flight followers working for supplemental carriers.

So as you can see, the job duties of an aircraft dispatcher and a flight follower are very similar, with a couple minor differences. Mary, working for a domestic air carrier, knows which flights she will have to flight plan ahead of time and is limited by rest regulations. Joe, working for a supplemental carrier (probably cargo), doesn't know about his flights ahead of time and is not bound by rest requirements. However, both Mary and Joe must have thorough knowledge of meteorology -- from interpreting weather charts to understanding basic weather theory. Both must select altitudes and routes and file the flight plans. Both must monitor the aircraft that are en route and help the pilots if anything unusual occurs in-flight. Both are required to have an extensive knowledge base in aviation.

Training and Testing

So how does an aircraft dispatcher or flight follower get so smart?

As discussed above, aircraft dispatchers for domestic carriers are required by the FARs to hold an aircraft dispatcher's certificate. Flight followers working for supplemental carriers, while not required by the FARs to be certified, are often required by the individual company to be certified. Moral of the story -- if you have any interest in being an aircraft dispatcher or flight follower, get your aircraft dispatcher certificate. Your chances of obtaining a job in any flight operations department will increase dramatically if you are certified.

Aircraft Dispatch Class

For someone who has limited experience in the aviation industry, the route to obtaining an aircraft dispatcher certificate is by attending and graduating from a Certified Aircraft Dispatcher Course. These courses include a minimum of 200 classroom hours and cover a wide range of aviation topics. Some topics to be covered include regulations, meteorology, navigation, aircraft, communications, air traffic control, emergency and abnormal procedures, and practical dispatching applications. Appendix A to Part 65 provides a very detailed list of all topics required to be covered. Reviewing this list alone will provide you with a newfound respect for aircraft dispatchers -- it is quite lengthy and detailed. Once you have graduated from the course and completed the aircraft dispatcher knowledge test, you take the practical examination. On a side note, the aircraft dispatcher knowledge test is the exact same exam that Airline Transport Pilots are required to take.

If you have a solid background in the aviation industry, obtaining an aircraft dispatcher's certificate may be easier than you think. FAR 65.57 states that if you have "at least 2 years experience in the 3 years before the application date," you may be able to take the practical examination without graduating from a Certified Aircraft Dispatcher course. This regulation specifically states what qualifies as "experience." However, in order to pass the practical examination, you will still probably need to take a "short course." This is a condensed aircraft dispatcher course, geared towards those individuals with extensive aviation backgrounds, which focuses on passing the practical examination.

For both courses (the certified course and the short course), you must be at least 21 years of age to enroll in the course and take your knowledge test and practical examinations. You cannot officially obtain your aircraft dispatcher's certificate until the age of 23. If you are between the ages of 21 and 23 years, and you take the course and pass the examinations, the FAA will document that you have passed everything. The actual certificate will then be issued to you on your 23rd birthday.

Not Just for Non-Pilots

"But I've always wanted to fly. Why should I get an aircraft dispatcher's certificate?" If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that question, I wouldn't be running an aircraft dispatcher school. I would be sitting on a beach in Key West sipping margaritas. The answer is simple -- aviation is a competitive and changing industry, and anything you can add to your aviation credentials is an investment well-spent. Yes, your lifelong goal may be becoming an airline pilot (or maybe you are one already). Keep that goal and strive for it -- what a wonderful and exciting career. But what if you lose your medical? Wouldn't you want to have a back-up career that still allows you to work in the aviation industry? What if you get laid off? Yeah, the majors may be doing poorly at the time, but at the same time, some cargo carrier may be hiring flight followers. With the way the industry is now, with thousands of jet pilots on the street, anything you can add to your resume to set you apart from the crowd is an investment in your future.

And then there are those of you who have a passion for aviation, but have no interest in flying. Bravo. As stated above, wanting to become a pilot is a wonderful goal, but many people do not realize that there are many other exciting fields in aviation that do not involve leaving the ground -- my personal favorite non-flying aviation career is, you guessed it, aircraft dispatching. If you enjoy a high-paced environment, enjoy working with people, are good at multi-tasking (see the first paragraph of this article), and have a passion for aviation, aircraft dispatching may be the perfect career for you.

Oh, I forgot to mention one little benefit of becoming a certified aircraft dispatcher -- jumpseating. That's right -- J-U-M-P-S-E-A-T-I-N-G, just like certified airline pilots. For those of you who are familiar with the term, you understand the significant benefit. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, let me give you a brief explanation -- with an aircraft dispatcher's certificate and a company I.D., you can travel for free. That's right -- for F-R-E-E.

In conclusion, aircraft dispatchers and flight followers play a vital role in the safety of every Part 121 flight (domestic or supplemental). They are the "pilot on the ground" and are the main resource outside of the cockpit. The dispatching career is high-paced, challenging, and rewarding, and comes with the great benefit of jumpseating. If aircraft dispatching or flight following sounds like the aviation career for you, contact an aircraft dispatcher school and enroll in a certified aircraft dispatcher course. Or, if you qualify under FAR 65.57, take a "short course." Either way, obtaining an aircraft dispatcher certificate will open up many doors for you in the exciting world of aviation.

If you have any questions about aircraft dispatching or about attending an aircraft dispatching course, please contact Christina Wall at the Michigan Institute of Aeronautics.