Aviation jobs: A Southwest Airlines flight dispatcher explains his role

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We’re starting an occasional feature here at L.A. Airspace in which we ask airline employees about their jobs. We generally won’t profile flight attendants or pilots, but instead, we’ll focus on the people behind the scenes.

Mark Johnson (1) (619x1024)Here’s our first installment, in which we learn about flight dispatch – or the folks who, with airline captains, make your flight plans.

Mark Johnson
Southwest Airlines
Manager of Dispatch Standards

Tell me about your job. What are your duties?

My role at Southwest Airlines is to provide support to the Operations Coordination Center, including our Dispatch group. I am responsible for developing and establishing policy and procedures, while interacting and communicating with other departments inside and outside of Southwest Airlines.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The Dispatch profession gives you the opportunity to be involved in nearly every facet of the airline. Each day brings a new challenge from managing disruptive weather to assisting network planning with future schedule development. I enjoy knowing that every time I come to the office I will be faced with a new challenge. As a Dispatcher, I feel as though I have the best job in the Company and love the work that I do.

How long have you been doing? How did you get started?

I am a licensed Dispatcher and have worked at regional, medium, and major airlines. I have been in the airline business since 1994, and I have worked in the Operational Control/Dispatch environment since 1998. As an Operations Agent for Southwest, I was exposed to the complexity that Dispatchers are exposed to on a daily basis. Those interactions inspired me to get my Dispatch license and make a career out of being a Dispatcher.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest misconception is that we work for ATC or do traffic separation. Typically we have to clarify that we represent the safety of each flight under our watch but work for the individual airline. We are a vital cog in the daily airline routine.

What skills does one need to be a flight dispatcher?

You have to be a great multi-tasker and can’t get rattled easily. As a Dispatcher you are expected to handle a multitude of situations, from the mundane to emergency situations. You have to be able to juggle those situations by prioritizing the most critical and time sensitive issues first. In addition, the Dispatch environment can be very stressful at times. So, you need patience and a good sense of humor to get through those difficult days. Every Dispatcher can recount some of their worst days on the job, but we keep coming back for more. We love our job and are some of the most passionate employees (and avgeeks!) in the business.

I believe in the United States, a dispatcher and a captain have equal control over the flight. In practice, how does that work?

This is true, the Dispatcher and Captain are equally responsible for the safe conduct of the flight. These same regulations are also in place in Canada and a few other Countries. The concept is trained at all airlines that are required to use a Dispatcher. The Dispatcher and Captain each have to sign the Dispatch Release stating that it will be conducted safely. And, if something changes where there is a chance the flight might not be operated safely (weather en route, etc.), they will take appropriate steps to get the flight safely on the ground. The concept is called “operational control.” The flight will not be conducted unless the Dispatcher AND the Captain agree that it can be conducted safely. This rule is stated in the Federal Regulations and is a required part of the business. I believe Flight Crews have come to rely on Dispatch for the vast amount of information and resources we are able to provide.

What else should we know about you or your job?

Every commercial flight operated in the United States that requires a Dispatcher has a person on the ground watching over them. We communicate constantly with flights to alert them to changing airport conditions as well as changing weather conditions. Our goal is to ensure every customer, Crew Member, or piece of cargo gets to where it is going safely and efficiently.Our livelihood is dependent on providing the highest level of safety and customer service to every flight and customer under our watch. I’m an avid aviation person (AVGEEK) and love having a job that is also my hobby.

Interested in learning more about flight dispatchers? Check out my interview from June with Lufthansa’s Marcus Pabst, as he explained to me how he plans a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. 

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Won’t make a Southwest Airlines flight? You must tell the airline or you’ll lose your money

Consider this a public service announcement. Starting today, if you do not cancel your Southwest Airlines ticket at least 10 minutes before your flight is scheduled to leave, you’ll forfeit everything you paid for your flights.

This is for Southwest’s “Wanna Get Away” and “Ding” fares, the airline’s cheapest and most popular tickets. In the past, you could receive a travel credit — but not a refund — if you didn’t take your flight. There was no requirement to tell the airline you weren’t going to show up.

Southwest’s policy is still just about the most customer friendly of any major airline. Most airline charge high fees – as high as 200 — when customers cancel a flight.

Click here for information on Southwest’s policies.

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Singer Gavin DeGraw performs on a LAX-bound Southwest Airlines flight

Southwest Airlines passengers traveling from Phoenix to LAX were treated to a mini-concert by singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw Wednesday. It was part of the airline's Live at 35 series.  Photo by Robert Casillas.

Southwest Airlines passengers traveling from Phoenix to LAX were treated to a mini-concert by singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw Wednesday, as part of the airline’s “Live at 35″ series. Photo by Robert Casillas.

Have you ever wondered about the acoustics at 35,000 feet?

Perhaps not. But some folks on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles on Wednesday got a first-hand lesson in them. Gavin DeGraw, a singer-songwriter perhaps best known for composing theme music for the television drama “One Tree Hill,” played a two-song set when flight 425 reached its cruising altitude. He also had some fun, even climbing onto a seat for a short period.

Most of the passengers admitted to me that they had never heard of DeGraw, but that did not stop their excitement. They cheered after his set and then asked for autographs and pictures. DeGraw happily complied.

The sound quality, while not great, was not nearly as poor as I feared. Passengers could definitely hear the words through the public address system.

Here are some videos from the performance.

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Southwest plane at LGA lands without landing gear

UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting 10 people were injured, “though it appeared that none were serious.”

A Southwest Airlines 737 landed Monday evening without its front landing gear, according to reports.

It appears everyone is OK, but there are some pretty scary images and videos being shared on social media today. Here are some of them.

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Southwest plane from LAX to Austin makes emergency landing in Phoenix

UPDATE 6 p.m. — Initial news reports indicated that the plane received an escort from fighter jets, but Michael Kucharek, spokesman for North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a telephone interview that the reports were erroneous.

“There was no intercept nor an escort,” Kucharek said. “We monitored from the air.”

ORIGINAL POST A Southwest Airlines plane from Los Angeles to Austin made an emergency landing in Phoenix on Monday afternoon escorted by fighter jets.

In a statement, officials with Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport said the plane was diverted because of a “possible threat.” Assistance from Phoenix police was requested.

The flight was Southwest flight 2675.

We received the statement below from Southwest at around 4:30 p.m. PDT.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the captain of Southwest Airlines flight 2675, en route from Los Angeles to Austin, safely landed in Phoenix to look into a possible security threat. The 143 Customers are being deplaned via airstairs and we will accommodate them on their way to AUS as soon as possible.”

 

 

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