Dispatchers and Ground Operations

Airlines are expected to operate on just a 0.9 percent profit margin in 2010, according to the latest International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecast. With profits so thin on the ground, it’s not surprising that those on the ground are among the hardest hit.

Price is paramount in ground services. As a simple rule of thumb, in the current market conditions the lowest price will win the job. That puts enormous pressure on ground handlers to reduce costs in order to win business. Alongside this there is the never-ending push by carriers to increase aircraft utilization rates, usually by shortening turnaround times.

It is a potentially precarious combination — doing things faster and cheaper — which piles huge responsibility on the flight dispatcher. Dispatchers basically drive the turnaround. They are responsible for safe and timely operations, working with the captain of a flight to account for all pertinent information and regulations while ensuring customer convenience is not unduly hindered.

Consider all the constantly changing conditions which could affect a flight — from weather disruptions to a missing passenger. Dispatchers must react safely and efficiently to the flight in hand, simultaneously maintaining unblinking vigilance on all the other flights under their control.

It has always been a crucial role, requiring significant experience to fill. But the modern operational environment, from the application of new technologies to the constant pressure on time and costs, has the potential to impact the job of being a dispatcher. A significant change in ground processes could be in the offing.

The best of both worlds

Time is money. And money is money too — and airlines want to save both. Captain Tipparat Pakpoomsin, assistant flight dispatch manager, Bangkok Airways, insists the dispatcher role isn’t yet about enduring unnecessary pressure. He does accept, however, that while training always complies with all safety and regulatory measures, perhaps more can be done to support the dispatcher function. “Technology can help us to get more data and assistance, but we have to pay more for that,” he says.

Flight planning software is one example. With dispatchers responsible for monitoring weather conditions, modern programs capable of complex calculations offer invaluable assistance. Much can be done at the touch of a button, although human observation and input remain critical.

Captain Fareh Ishraf Mazputra, director of flight operations, AirAsia, agrees that technology is making a difference. “The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) or any other flight following or communication technology assists the dispatchers tremendously in providing them with dynamic timings and position, enabling dispatchers to provide relevant information if required,” he says.

But the technology is proving a double-edged sword. As in many other aspects of life, it has been accused of making “common sense” flexibility redundant. ACARS basically allows for the transmission of relatively short and simple messages between aircraft and ground operations. This could be interpreted as cutting out the dispatcher to a degree, automating part of a process that has long been boosted by personal relationships. ACARS can’t request a gate agent to double-check all the boarding cards when they don’t tally, for example, nor can it ensure the right holds are used for baggage. And pilots have wryly noted they can’t just call ACARS up to the flight deck when they need something.

ACARS also records precisely when the aircraft doors are shut and this has led to claims of an industry blame game developing. All parties try to pass the buck when there are delays. For the ground handler, of course, the delay could mean a financial penalty.

It’s a scenario that is likely to spread, with ACARS due to be superseded by the Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) protocol for Air Traffic Control communications and by the Internet Protocol for airline communications.

Basic instinct

There are also fears that increased reliance on technology means dispatchers are losing touch with the basics. Driving the turnaround is no longer within their remit, according to some sources. They simply record the reason for a delay and hand over an automated loadsheet to the captain for sign-off.

In part, the problem doesn’t really lie with the dilution of the dispatcher’s role, but rather with the lack of on-ramp support. With prices paid to ground handling agents being squeezed, it is no surprise that staff numbers are kept to a minimum too, with a commensurate increase in multitasking. But for many carriers, particularly in the budget sector, that’s exactly what’s required.

“Efficiency of the dispatchers’ role is what we’re looking for,” notes AirAsia’s Mazputra. “In general, training is more thorough, but dispatchers nowadays are expected to be multitasking in many roles within the operations control center.”

It has been argued that low cost carriers don’t really need dispatchers anyway. There’s very little in the way of cargo or catering to worry about, for example. Others point to the sector’s so-so on-time performance as evidence that the dispatcher’s role remains crucial.

Here to stay

Even if a dedicated dispatcher has been superseded to some extent by market conditions and new technologies, it seems most cannot foresee a future without at least someone in the dispatcher role. The overriding sense of safety and reliability they bring in these days of rapid turnarounds means they are probably here to stay, in one form or another.

At Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi, the dispatcher — or Turnaround Supervisor (TAS) as the position is known locally — is considered an essential cog in the wheel of overall operations. Despite being a young airline, founded only in 2003, there was never any question of working without a TAS or cost-cutting any area that could potentially affect an efficient turnaround.

A number of factors underpinned the decision, but for Etihad the crucial consideration was an expanding network and a hub operation. At the home airport, a seamless progression from one flight to the next is fundamental to an airline’s viability. Technology helps at Etihad, but the personal touch — having someone who can oversee the entire process, deal with pilot requests, and make a split-second decision on a passenger issue — cannot be beaten.

“The role of the dispatcher is very important,” AirAsia’s Mazputra concurs. “Dispatchers ensure a safe flight.” And that is always the first priority.