Air Transport World

Dispatchers: out of sight, out of mind.

When something strange is going on with the weather, the ATC routing, the airport or the airplane, who you gonna call? BY William McGee.

New York-In January, 1990, Avianca Flight 52 ran out of fuel while approaching Kennedy Airport and crashed. Primary among the contributing causes is believed to have been the almost total lack of positive operational control on the part of the 707's ground staff in Bogota; the flight crew was not in contact with its company to obtain accurate weather observations and forecasts, alternate-airport conditions, anticipated fuel burn, ATC updates or other critical information not easily accessible. At this writing, NTSB was finalizing its report of the accident.

The complexities of operating commercial aircraft within crowded airspace are too great to be handled only by cockpit crews and an overworked ATC network. For this reason, the role of the aircraft dispatcher has evolved into that of overseer and liaison, sharing with pilots responsibility for safety and operational control.

The generic term "operational control" carries varying definitions from country to country but for U.S. carriers, the regulations are clear that the dispatcher needs to share the responsibility for "issuing necessary instructions or information for the safety of the flight" with the captain.

These regulations have produced two masters for working dispatchers-airlines that pay salaries and governments that issue licenses. The dispatcher is to act as the carrier's "conscience" but the reality is that tremendous pressure is put upon him to release a flight under questionable weather conditions, with a restricted aircraft or carrying maximum payload.

U.S. regulations state clearly that the dispatcher has the authority to delay or cancel a flight under doubtful circumstances. But it is difficult to explain such a decision to management, particularly at a smaller carrier, where the impact on revenue is greater.

Dispatchers' organization formed

The Avianca accident had a profound effect upon this segment of the industry and in its wake, several working dispatchers gathered to form the Airline Dispatchers Federation. Founded in March, 1990, ADF is a "fledgling organization that is quickly defining itself," according to Executive Vice President Bill Leber. The first order of business was establishing Washington regulatory, safety and political contacts to spread knowledge about dispatching. Leber hopes that ADF will help to raise standards. "There never has been an organization to address professional issues" about dispatching in the U.S.

For a profession that provides such a vital service, dispatching is widely misunderstood. …

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