Aviation jobs: A Southwest Airlines flight dispatcher explains his role


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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Lufthansa Cargo: Inside one airline’s LAX operation

Perhaps you’re in Europe and you need a Corvette. And you want it in a few days, not a couple of months. How would you get it?

You might try Lufthansa Cargo, the German-based airline with a worldwide route network. Lufthansa Cargo flies three times a week to Los Angeles International Airport, and the airline recently allowed me to observe its operations here. For a couple of hours, the tarmac is bustling, with crews simultaneously loading and unloading cargo.

The Corvette is just one tiny piece of what Lufthansa Cargo transported on a recent evening. Read on to learn more about how it all works.

Continue reading

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Lufthansa’s Instagram account gets you behind the scenes

Perhaps better than any other airline, Lufthansa understands the power of social media. And the airline’s instagram account is about as good as it gets – at least for people who like to know what happens behind the scenes at a major worldwide carrier.

I’ve compiled some of the airline’s recent shots, many of which were taken by a pilot on the Frankfurt to LAX route. Sometimes, the photographers go a bit heavy with the filter. But it’s cool stuff, nonetheless.

Here we go:

  • Beautiful inside and out: One of Boeing 747-8′s new raked wings. We’ll explore more #FRAspots tomorrow. Stay tuned :) #youthhotspotsgermany
  • Ever wondered who’s the man behind the airport announcements? Meet Heino! His Chinese sounds great :) #FRAspots #youthhotspotsgermany
  • One might think that’s a subway map – but it’s only a little section of the baggage control center’s display. #FRAspots #youthhotspotsgermany
  • My lunch enroute over #Greenland #pilotdiary
  • 35,000 feet over the North Atlantic #pilotdiary

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United’s new Mercedes service comes to O’Hare, but not LAX

Sorry Angelenos.

Los Angeles International Airport will not be the next United Airlines hub to receive special Mercedes service, which I detailed in a post yesterday. That honor is going to United’s hub at Chicago O’Hare International airport, according to this story. 

Just as in Houston, some of United’s best customers will be shuttled from gate to gate in chauffeured Mercedes-Benz cars. The passengers won’t know whether they’ll get the service, though. It’ll be a surprise.

Your intrepid reporter had a similar experience recently in Frankfurt, pictured below. If you love aviation, it’s darn cool to be riding around on the tarmac.



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United Airlines to drive some passengers to gates in Mercedes cars

United Airlines will soon drive some of its best customers to the gate using Mercedes cars like this one.

United Airlines will soon drive some of its best customers to the gate using Mercedes cars like this one.

Want to be driven to your next flight in a chauffeured Mercedes? You may now have your chance.

United Airlines plans to shuttle some of its top fliers around the tarmac using Mercedes Benz cars. It just soft-launched the program at its Houston hub, where it will initially have two cars –  one S-Class sedan and one GL-Class SUV.

With only two cars, it’ll be hit or miss on who gets the service. But fliers eligible to get the special ride will be United’s elite Global Services members, as well as passengers traveling on international first class flights.

Lucky customers will be picked up at one gate and shuttled on the airport tarmac to their connecting flight. The customer will then board via the jet bridge stairs. No need to go into the terminal. Priority will go to passengers on tight connections.

United officials say they’ll soon launch the project a second hub. My guess is that second hub is not LAX – Newark, perhaps – but who knows? Maybe Angelenos will get lucky.

United is actually a little late to this party. Lufthansa has had the service at its Frankfurt and Munich hubs for years, and its Mercedes/Porsche fleet is far larger than two cars. I recently experienced the Mercedes service in Frankfurt and let me tell you, it was pretty cool. The luxury is nice, but it’s the increased efficiency that is even better. There’s no waiting for anything.

Delta has also rolled out a similar program at its Atlanta hub using Porsches, a convenience detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

What do you think of this service? Do you hope to use it?

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