Disclaimer: All opinions expressed on AndyBox.com are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Southwest Airlines Co., its Directors, or other Employees.
I am currently a flight dispatcher and on-the-job trainer for Southwest Airlines. I love my job and feel very grateful to work for such a great company. I’ve worked at Southwest since 2001, starting in the Technology department right after college as a tech writer/analyst and moving over to Dispatch in early 2005.
The Dispatcher’s Role
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 completing 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. An airline 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, one desk handles most Dallas departures to other Texas destinations, such as Dallas Love to Austin. Another desk handles longer flights from the Southeast to the West, such as Atlanta to Las Vegas. 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.
I received a Master of Business Administration in Aviation degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2006 and my FAA Aircraft Dispatcher certificate from a local dispatch school in 2002. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Baylor University in 2001, majoring in professional writing and minoring in computer science.
Interested in Dispatching for Southwest?
People sometimes contact me hoping to get a dispatch job at Southwest. Here are some important things to know. Southwest is a huge company with a large People department that handles our hiring. Whenever a position gets posted, applicants apply through the Southwest careers website. In decades past, it might have helped to know someone who worked at Southwest who could put in a good word for you, but the People department is working hard to make the process fair (and legal!) for all applicants by focusing on what they know rather than whom they know.
So…I can’t get you a job here. Sorry. Nor can I give out the contact info for the recruiters, dispatch managers, or any of those other folks, or forward them your resume or cover letter. Instead, please apply through the website when the position is open and let your experience and abilities win you the job. We might hire once or twice a year. Stay in touch with dispatcher-oriented websites and groups (the Airline Dispatchers Federation’s Facebook group is a great resource) to find out when Southwest’s and other airlines’ dispatch positions will open up.
That being said, if you have questions about Southwest in general or dispatching in particular, write me through my contact page.