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I am currently a flight dispatcher for Southwest Airlines. I love my job and feel very grateful to work for such a great company. I’ve worked at Southwest for over 14 years, starting in the Technology department and moving over to Dispatch in early 2005.
The Dispatcher’s Role
The Dispatchers are the folks who plan our flights, including the route, altitude, fuel load, and alternate airports. We also keep the Pilots informed during the flight of any adverse weather conditions, air traffic problems, turbulence, or other issues they need to know about. When mechanical problems occur, we coordinate with the Pilots and the Maintenance Controllers to decide how to handle them. We have a text messaging system, similar to instant messaging, that we can use to talk to the Pilots inflight. For each of our flights, we write up the plan and send it electronically to the airport. The captain looks it over and signs it, and from that point on we share responsibility for the flight’s safety. Every scheduled airline has dispatchers, and many charter and cargo airlines have similar positions. We all have an aircraft dispatcher certificate from the FAA, which you receive after completed dispatch school and passing a written exam and an oral/practical exam.
Dispatch vs Air Traffic Control
Many people’s initial reaction when they hear “flight dispatcher” is to think we are air traffic controllers, like they saw in Pushing Tin. We talk to ATC on occasion, but our jobs are very different. They are highly skilled “traffic cops” who keep the aircraft from running into each other both on the ground and in the air. They don’t really care how much fuel we burn, how much money we make, or even whether the flight is legal as long as it doesn’t run into another flight. They work for the FAA. Dispatchers, on the other hand, are essentially mission control for a particular airline, working out many of the operational details of each flight but not involved in aircraft separation. A flight needs both Dispatch and ATC to operate safely.
For each shift I work at a particular desk, which is how we split up the work at Southwest. Each desk is responsible for all flights between certain city-pairs. For example, Desk 13 handles most Dallas departures. Desk 20 handles longhauls from the Southeast and Midwest to the West. We usually work 6 days on, 3 off, 6 on, 3 off, 6 on, 6 off each month. There are three main shifts: day (roughly 6 AM – 2 PM), afternoon (roughly 2 PM – 10 PM), and midnight (roughly 10 PM – 6 AM). Some people, including myself, like to trade shifts to adjust our days off. The Airline Dispatchers Federation website has more info on our profession.
A typical day starts with a brief from the dispatcher whom you relieve by taking over control of their flights. He/she tells me about any significant weather, turbulence, problem flights, or other relevant issues. Then I log in to the computers and open the various software that I use. I inherit some enroute flights from the previous dispatcher and some flights that they planned but haven’t yet taken off. I look over the flight releases, checking to make sure I’m happy with the fuel load and that all the paperwork is in order. I check the current weather and forecasts for each city, radar, fronts, turbulence forecasts and reports, and air traffic at busy airports like Philadelphia. Once I have a handle on what’s happening in my area, I plan the runways, runway conditions, temperatures, air pressures, contingency fuel, and alternates for my airports. Then I make the computer use those inputs to create a flight plan for each flight, including the time enroute, altitude, route, minimum required fuel, and maximum takeoff weight. I look over each flight plan to ensure that it is legal, safe, cost-effective, and likely to get the flight to its destination on-time without having to divert for weather or other issues. If anything is broken on the aircraft, such as a seat back or overhead bin, I consult the Minimum Equipment List to see whether we are still safe to fly, and if so, what we need to do to keep the flight safe and legal. Once I’m satisfied, I file the flight plan with air traffic control, and our operations agents print out the flight plan at the airport for the captain. While all this is happening, I might get calls about maintenance issues, problems with a flight being overweight for takeoff, questions on weather or turbulence, text messages from pilots enroute regarding issues like turbulence or sick flight attendants who need to be replaced at the next city, or a host of other issues. If the dispatcher next to me steps away, I might answer their calls as well. If everything is running smoothly, it’s not nearly as stressful as it might seem. But if many problems pop up at once, or even if you get a few problems that are hard to solve, it can make for a very busy shift.
My Start at SWA
I didn’t start off wanting to be a dispatcher. In fact, I didn’t even know what a dispatcher was until my Southwest interview halfway through my senior year at Baylor. I had decided to pursue a career in technical writing. Fortunately, someone at Southwest decided to take a chance on me.
In June 2001 I began my career with Southwest as a technical writer in the computer department. I worked on lots of things, much of it for the Dispatchers, which is how I got interested in the job. I created online help for some of their applications, and I maintained one of their aircraft manuals, the Minimum Equipment List.
A few months after I started, terrorists used aircraft to attack the United States. Most other US airlines immediately laid off thousands of workers, many 10 percent or more of the workforce, in anticipation of the huge drop in travel that followed. I was a brand-new hire, fresh out of college, in a position that many in my department didn’t appreciate or understand. At many other airlines, I would have been gone. But Southwest’s leaders said no. Even though they knew demand for air travel would drop significantly, they chose to stand by us and not lay off a single employee. And I will forever be grateful to them for that. My life would probably be much different if I’d been working for another airline on that day.
Later I helped customize a Web site for a new report management tool and found other ways to improve the clarity and usability of some of our applications. Then I became a business analyst on the Change Management team, which set the processes and supported the application our department uses to document and manage our hardware and software upgrades. I taught classes, designed software, answered people’s questions, helped them use the application, facilitated weekly change meetings, and tried to improve the process.
I loved being at Southwest, but the dispatch bug had bitten me, and I started trying to get into the department back in my days as a tech writer. It wasn’t a short or easy road. To read the full story on how I got the job, visit my recent stories page. I finally moved over in January 2005 and completed my training period in January 2006.
I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Baylor University in 2001, majoring in professional writing and minoring in computer science. I received a Master of Business Administration in Aviation degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2006.
For more information on dispatch, tech writing, or careers at SWA, write me through my contact page.