Aircraft Dispatchers and Ground Delays: A Personal Perspective

Lengthy ground delays may be something that those who are onboard of an aircraft get easily annoyed with, and as aircraft dispatchers – we get that. However, we also understand what is going on behind-the-scenes, and unless someone who is trying to get to the root of the problem actually talks with working dispatchers and air traffic controllers – the front-line troops in the weather war, the following conclusions could not be made from a bird’s-eye view.

In order to get the big picture on ground delays and how they relate to weather, why they happen, and why they take so long, you have to take a look into the aircraft dispatcher’s control center – where we see and assess everything.

Recent research was conducted, during which flight crews were questioned about ground delays. However, a typical flight crew may operate anywhere from 3 to 5 flights a day, while an aircraft dispatcher may operate anywhere from 30-50 flights during one single shift. Aircraft dispatchers have a more detailed awareness and understanding of the various problems that can occur during an airline’s route. The aircraft dispatcher plans the flight and has it down to a science; from preparing the main route, alternative routes, fuel load, and passing along information to the flight crew during the flight, and here at Sheffield School of Aeronautics, we can prepare you for that.

When it comes to ground delays, when weather hits – it is the job of the aircraft dispatcher to divert flights and sometimes cancel them. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects to being an aircraft dispatcher and having to delay flights – is how to determine which weather is weather that should cause flights to be cancelled or delayed. Although we may think of a thunderstorm as a thunderstorm, to an aircraft dispatcher – it is so much more than that.

For example: there was a thunderstorm that delayed an Austin, Texas flight by 7 hours. Now, while this may have made a lot of traveling passengers angry, aircraft dispatchers have passenger safety first of mind. When looking at a radar, an aircraft dispatcher determines multiple variables associated with the weather, which can have varying effects on net operational impact. Is the thunderstorm isolated, scattered, broken, or solid line? What is the movement of the storm? What is its trends? Is it a low pressure storm?  Where is the top of the storm? – can the aircraft fly over it? In this particular Texas case, the 7 hour delay was among the more uncommon type of delay, and it was due to a low pressure system that was wavering over west Texas, causing a long line of thunderstorms, so for a flight moving from south to north, it would have had to endure a lengthy time of thunderstorms, longer than typical, causing the flight to be grounded for longer than usual.

A typical ground delay lasts roughly 2-4 hours and occurs more frequently on the east coast. In order to help sharpen the lines that airline passengers have when it comes to ground delays, Sheffield School of Aeronautics recommends thinking of the flight much like that of your daily commute to work. If you know that your commute usually takes X amount of time in permitting weather, and 2X in rainy weather, and 3X in snow and icy weather, keep in mind that it is the same for an airline route.

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