It’s the Friday of a long weekend, and I’m spending the evening in the Operations Control Centre (OCC) alongside Josef, a WestJet Flight Dispatcher, to learn more about the role of flight dispatchers at WestJet. Rather than feeling tired after a long week, I’m instantly energized when I walk through the door – this place is hopping. I also feel incredibly lucky to be a guest here. It may not be a typical Friday night, but I’m thrilled.
If you haven’t been to the OCC before, there’s no place like it. The room is dark, and each workstation is filled with multiple monitors dedicated to tracking amounts of information that make my head hurt. The place buzzes with radio chatter, friendly in-person conversations and phone calls. I’m immediately worried I won’t be able to keep up with the team here or tell everyone about their work.
This is a place where you can really see our airline, and all of the pieces needed for our success, come together. It’s incredible to think about aircraft and people being scheduled, maintenance being planned and so many behind-the-scenes things (like figuring out a commercial schedule and, oh, selling seats) being completed for each flight a dispatcher looks after.
You can hear the teamwork in action between crew schedulers, maintenance controllers, load planners, flight crews, etc., and it all sounds like a friendly internal guest experience to me.
Josef has asked me to come early so that I can observe the shift change process. I walk in behind him and he starts getting updates from the day shift before he’s even put his bag down. Each of the dispatch desks are named after letters and referred to by their aviation alphabet names like bravo, delta and hotel. Each desk divides a dispatcher’s work by routes and areas.
After a thorough briefing from fellow Dispatcher Jacquie, Josef sets himself up at the delta desk, which means that his routes for the evening are in the West. Jacquie relays information about fuel, some weather brewing near Las Vegas and a general overview of the routes the delta desk will look after.
In the blink of an eye, Josef has logged in and opened at least 12 program windows (spread out over three screens) and I can see him absorbing info from each. He’s using each of these sources to make WestJet’s flight plans in the most efficient and safe manner, calculating how much fuel is required and considering things like weather, airspace restrictions, weight on the aircraft and what other airlines are up to. And that’s when things go as planned – a big part of a dispatcher’s job is to ensure there are alternate plans and information available so that a crew can respond if their situation changes.
“You have to trust in the partnership between our flight crews and dispatchers. We make it work because we work together, and I’m here to support them,” says Josef.
Dispatchers need to know a lot of info, and they take a tough certification exam from Transport Canada. They’re pros in weather, navigation, aircraft, our business and much more. Dispatchers must follow four manuals in their duties – that’s a lot of regulations to keep track of! Plus, they need to do all of this while thinking and acting quickly and calmly.
All of this seems like a seriously busy career choice that could be pretty stressful. “When it gets busy, you don’t even need to ask for help. The team is already there giving you a hand. No one here would let you get overwhelmed,” says Josef in a very calm, matter-of-fact tone.
I look around at the Dispatch team I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a little better on this Friday evening, and there’s no doubt that Josef is right. They don’t seem to think anything of how organized and friendly they are. It’s just what they do.