Flight Dispatcher: The Pilot on the Ground
When it comes to my family, friends or even passengers sitting next to me on a flight, a question that is raised whenever explaining that I dispatch for a living is, “So… what exactly is it that you do?” Or another question which really tickles me is, “So you’re an air traffic controller?” Don’t feel bad if you’re reading this right now pondering the same question; quite frankly, I myself didn’t realize what a “dispatcher” was until a few years ago. It wasn’t until my freshman year as an undergrad that I became aware of this position and when I obtained a job as a ramp agent - loading and stacking luggage at my local airport to help pay for schooling.
You’ll find most of today’s dispatchers located at the airline’s Operations Control Center (OCC), sometimes called Systems Operations Control (SOC) which is located at their headquarters. When compared to the human body, the OCC is the brain of an airline and simply stated without an OCC the airline would cease to exist. If there was a complete power loss, flood or fire in the building, to avoid a complete halt of the airline’s operation affecting thousands of passengers, there is usually a remote backup OCC at the ready that personnel can operate out of.
Avjobs.com lays out the description of a dispatcher perfectly:
“In cooperation with the captain, the flight dispatcher furnishes a flight plan that enables the aircraft to arrive at its destination on schedule with the maximum payload and the least operating cost. The flight dispatcher evaluates en route and destination weather, winds aloft, alternate destinations, fuel required, altitudes, and traffic flow. The dispatcher's signature, along with that of the captain, releases the aircraft for flight. The dispatcher maintains a constant watch on all flights dispatched, and is responsible in joint authority with the captain for flight planning, route and altitude selection, fuel load requirements, aircraft legality and complying with FAA regulations. The dispatcher is the go-between for the captain and ground service personnel, and keeps all personnel concerned with the flight informed about its status. The dispatcher must be familiar with navigation facilities over airline routes and at airports as well as with the takeoff, cruising, and landing characteristics of all aircraft operated by the airline. The flight dispatcher also must ride periodically in the cockpit with the flight crew to observe flight routes, conditions, and airports per FAA regulations.”
That being said, dispatchers are considered a member of the flight crew as we are not so much air traffic controllers, but sometimes referenced as a pilot on the ground. While an aircraft is in flight, dispatchers are responsible to warn the crew of any unforeseen meteorological developments, unexpected losses of navigational aids or sudden changes in traffic and field conditions which might adversely affect the successful completion of a flight. In the event unsafe conditions threaten the safety of the passengers or the aircraft, dispatchers will either delay until conditions will deem it safe or cancel the flight entirely. Additionally, a dispatcher must be quick to offer an alternative plan of action to the crew when the original plan cannot be followed, such as an emergency, relaying information such as offering suitable airports to aid a stricken flight.