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.