QA With Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, manager of dispatch standards at Southwest Airlines, visited CBU and answered several student questions. Read the questions and answers below.

What exactly is a dispatcher?
A dispatcher is the pilot on the ground without the flying experience.  They are FAA licensed airmen that share operational control with the Captain.  Only the Captain and Dispatcher can authorize the flight to operate.  A dispatcher does all of the preflight planning for a flight.  They calculate the fuel burn based on a selected route.  The dispatcher plans the alternate airports in the event the flight cannot land at its intended destination.  A dispatcher has to have knowledge of everything associated with the airline.  This includes:  aircraft systems, meteorology, schedule planning, weight and balance, customer service policies, just to name a few.
In addition, there are a variety of different roles in an airline operations control department which require dispatch background.  Those include dispatch supervisors, daily operations managers, aircraft routers, etc. 
What does a typical day look like for a dispatcher?
Dispatchers work days are regulated by the FARs.  They cannot be scheduled for more than 10 hours of work in a day and must be given a minimum amount of rest between work shifts (8 hours).  However, dispatchers do work all hours of the day.  Even when the airline may not have planes in the sky, dispatchers will be in the office planning future flights.  For the airlines that fly internationally but are based in the United States, dispatchers will be working flights leaving those international countries, and landing in the USA 6-12 hours later.  For flights across the North Atlantic, many airlines have increased staffing on the midnight shift because you are planning flights leaving Europe during their day time.
The work hours depend on the airline.  Some airlines have dispatchers that work 8 hour shifts and some that work 10 hour shifts.  It's worth noting that dispatchers typically do not get lunch breaks.  They most often eat at their desk.  However, there are some days when it can be so busy managing irregular operations, they don't have time to eat.  Those days don't happen very often…but they do occur.
At major airlines, most dispatchers have generous time off.  At the regional/small airline level, most dispatchers work a minimum of 40 hours per week.  
Multi-tasking is extremely important for a dispatch career.  In addition, you have to be able to prioritize important items.  A dispatcher spends a lot of time analyzing weather trends, reading METARS/TAFS, and juggling aircraft issues.  A dispatcher is also responsible to help manage costs for their flights.  For example, if fuel is cheaper in one city, they may plan to carry more of the cheap fuel from that city so as to buy less in the more expensive city.  However, safety is always the number one priority.  Costs are always secondary to safety.  If a flight needs extra fuel because of bad weather, the dispatcher is expected to plan the flight with the proper amount of fuel to safely avoid the weather.
It is important to note that the job is very computer intensive.  Dispatch departments are gaining access to many new technology tools and are expecting those tools to increase safety and cost savings for the airlines.
A dispatcher is constantly learning.  There are scheduled classroom events, computer based training, new airplane training, new airline systems training, and regulation changes.  I've been in the business for 20 years and continue to learn every day.
What is the starting pay?
The starting pay varies depending on the airline.  Regional/small airlines will hire dispatchers with little to no experience.  Those rates can be in the mid $20,000s.  However, as you progress your career toward a major airline the pay rates get significantly better.  A major airline may have starting pay from the mid $30,000 to $50,000 range.  In addition, you get medical, dental, free or reduced travel privileges, and retirement packages.  A senior dispatcher at a major airline with roughly 15 years of experience can make up to and over $100,000. Finally, most airlines also offer overtime rates which allows a person to increase their income by working on their days off.
Some airlines offer rate premiums for working the airline ATC desk, international desk, or supervisor desk.  This is yet another way to increase your annual salary.
How is pay increased?/When does it start to increase?
At most airlines the pay will start to increase after the first full year of service.  Many airline dispatchers are represented by a union and have a union contract therefore they get guaranteed pay increases each year of the contract.
What types of companies can you work for? 
All FAR part 121 airlines in the USA are required to have dispatchers.  So the potential is to work for any regional, major, or cargo carrier.  In addition, many foreign airlines will employ a FAA licensed dispatcher for their operations if someone would be interested.
It is important to note that major airlines do not typically hire people with no experience.  Typically they are looking for people with experience at a regional airline or load planning experience within the airline.
Are there recertification tests in order to maintain dispatch certifications?
There are no recertification tests with the FAA after you have obtained a dispatch license.  However, if employed by an airline, the airline is required to give annual training as well as an annual competency exam.  Similar to the pilot structure.  The training and exams are required by FAA regulations.