Could I Be Outsourced?

Periodically, the FAA goes through the long, laborious process of changing some of the rules that airlines must follow. After lengthy internal analysis and debate, the officials publish proposed changes to the rules for a long period of public comment. The current list of proposed changes includes a few new requirements and roles that seem reasonable, such as requiring licensed aircraft dispatchers for charter operators. However, one change has some people in my office a bit concerned: allowing scheduled airlines like Southwest to contract out their dispatch services to a third party, much like an electronics company might outsource its tech support.

Some companies like Jeppesen already offer a contract dispatch service to business customers and foreign airlines. If the FAA makes this change, Southwest could hire Jeppesen to dispatch our flights instead of us.

From one Airliners.net discussion forum I read, Jeppesen is pushing hard for such a change for obvious reasons. The customers would likely be small airlines who might not have the money, space, and/or experience to provide the same level of quality that a company like Jeppeson would provide. However, the change would allow any airline to outsource its dispatchers, not just the little guys. Since a contract dispatch service could be cheaper than in-house dispatchers, especially at a well-established airline with a unionized, senior dispatch office, outsourcing might also appeal to managers of larger airlines as a cost-saving measure.

Since the primary goal of any union is protecting its members’ interest, our union is strongly opposed to the idea, arguing that outsourced dispatching would not provide the same level of safety. However, although I certainly want to keep my job, I can’t agree with such a sweeping generalization. The levels of safety on each side would depend on the individuals and organizations involved and the standards they meet.

My gut reaction says that yes, in-house dispatch MUST be safer. Running an unsafe dispatch office, among other problems, puts the entire company at risk and the dispatchers’ jobs along with it. Passengers don’t want to fly on an airline they consider unsafe. The FAA can shut down an airline that it considers unsafe. In-house dispatchers have a big incentive to do the right thing. However, job security would also be important at a contract dispatch office. A poor safety record would lead the airlines to switch to a competitor for their dispatch needs. I can’t help but wonder whether a contract dispatcher would care as much about the airline’s operation, though. He or she is unlikely to have the same tenure with, or loyalty to, the contract company as the average dispatcher at a major airline. I’ve been in my office over 6 1/2 years, and I’m still firmly in the bottom half of the seniority list.

Key to the answer is whether the employees’ goals (safety, legality, on-time performance, customer service) are aligned with their incentives (job security, pay, bonuses, pride, advancement opportunity). Each situation could be different.

The most pressing question for me: would Southwest outsource us? I highly doubt it. Our management seems to value our services, our current contract negotiations notwithstanding. We have a long history with the company and an overall excellent safety record. Nearly all of us own stock in Southwest, plan to stay here for a long time, and care about the company’s success. We have great incentive to do great work. On a more practical note, we’re also a huge operation (3400+ daily flights plus the AirTran flights) that would be very difficult for a contract office to handle. But if the FAA approves contract dispatching, and Southwest eventually decides that outsourcing us would just as safe and a better value, I suppose it’s remotely possible. That would be a sad day for many, many people.

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