Flight Dispatch as a CRM resource: A natural fit

By Richard Cantor, Specialist Dispatch and Flight Watch, Closed Loop Consulting

Having begun a career in a major international carrier almost 38 years ago and having spent the last 37 years in Flight Dispatch and over 28 years as a Dispatch Duty Manager, I have seen and been involved in many technical and procedural advances that have enabled Flight Dispatch to become an accepted and key contributor to the CRM process.

When I first started, computer flight planning was still in its infancy and some plans were prepared manually. That grounding for the Dispatchers of the manual era still stands them in good stead when dealing the far more automated systems of today. An experienced Dispatcher can do a “reasonability” check on most computer generated flight plans and know if further refinement is required. In the future this reasonability knowledge – the gut feeling – will be even more important as the technology allows even more automation of the process as it seeks to redefine the experience of the Dispatch science to a simple program operator role. Another step forward? Time will tell.

Some of the significant events I have been involved with over time have been related to the notification and avoidance of major volcanic events. The carrier for whom I spent a considerable period of time with had 90% of their international routes transiting areas of known volcano activity. Due to the location it was quite common that the first advice to Dispatch of an eruption was from an over-flying company aircraft. When this advice was received, the procedures that I had been involved with developing and implementing for the Dispatch function were activated. Obviously, there is a sequence that needs to be followed. Firstly any airborne aircraft that were, or could be affected needed to be re-routed or advised. In the days before Satcom and ACARS that was always a challenge. Secondly, was the necessity to deal with aircraft about to depart. Ash dispersion models were studied and a suitable avoidance area, allowing for winds at altitude was plotted. If required, new flight plans would be built and sent via various means to affected crews. Finally, a long-term routing plan based on tactical application and the ability to adapt at short notice was established. As a result of these volcanic avoidance issues, I became involved with the “VulcanAus” working group. This group comprised the main carriers in the immediate region plus other authorities such as the Australian CSIRO, bureau of Meteorology, ATC and guests from other South Pacific volcanic agencies.

One of the outcomes of these workshops was the establishment of a reporting and information sharing system where any pilot report of a new volcano would be passed to airline Dispatch Managers who then ensured all relevant stakeholders and other interested parties were advised. This system was eventually incorporated into the airline procedures and a model for tracking the cost of avoidance was built and shared with other airlines at various ICAO workshops. Partly as a result of the volcanic problems and also to fully comply with ETOPS reporting requirements for twin jet operations, a dedicated Flight Watch system was established. Being involved in the implementation of this specialist and dedicated role, as well as training of Dispatchers was a where I was struck by the importance of the broadened capabilities that the Dispatch function can provide to the CRM process for crews. System technical enhancements can alert Flight watch Officers to changes to weather (including volcanic information) or NOTAM updates likely to impact a specific flight. This information provides an enhanced level of situational awareness when it is consolidated with other dispatch information and passed in a timely manner to crews. The process enables crew to be provided early notification of critical information and provided re-routing options if necessary in the same data package. The process includes preparation and up-link of a new flight plan if necessary. The entire process not only provides immediate operational support, but also the ability to reduce the likelihood of diversions and fuel. It is hard not to perceive the Flight Dispatch group is in the best position to provide optimum fuel saving and operational outcomes for an airline in these circumstances.

An efficient and effective Dispatch function provides operational support and the ability to positively impact the “bottom line” by being proactive in the use of available systems on the back of carefully considered and implemented procedures. These concepts can be adapted for use in any airline’s Flight Dispatch area. But don’t forget, while systems and procedures are key to the bottom-line outcomes, it is equally important to develop the ancillary skills necessary in people to provide a complete service that distinguishes a truly effective and professional organisation. That is, recognising the importance of building the critical working relationships between Dispatch and the flight crew and Dispatch and ATC, Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) and the numerous other agencies that impact the airline’s operations on a daily basis. The ability of Dispatch staff to think laterally and to close the loop on the operational data and information cycle truly brings the Dispatch function into  CRM resources.