Work-life balance has been a hot topic across many industries, and the aviation world is no different. Still, when discussing the merits of a healthy balance between work and home, it's often an unspoken understanding that some jobs never cease. When we look closely at our industry, numerous roles could stand to see a little more balance between the two. One position often overlooked is that of the flight dispatcher/scheduler.
Dispatchers and schedulers go by various names and at times serve at least twice as many responsibilities. Beyond flight planning, fulfilling pilot requests, scheduling, postponement, and other necessary advisements are just basic responsibilities expected of the dispatchers/schedulers. Many are on call for more than 12 hours a day, sometimes 24 hours, and expected to juggle a plethora of details.
As we know, Part 91 and 135 operators are not legally required to have dispatchers or schedulers to operate. I believe this generates an unconscious approach, not always recognizing their importance. Unsurprisingly, individuals in this profession are viewed as high performers. However, there must be an adequate work-life balance to be high performing and maintain that level of performance. Contrary to popular belief, the real enemy of high performance is not stress; it's the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery. Chronic stress without recovery depletes energy reserves, leads to burnout and breakdown, and ultimately, undermines performance.
There is a strange paradox to the overwhelming amount of time we ask these professionals to be on duty. When you are "on" 24 hours a day, when do you have time to do anything else? When do you plan for the future? When do you have time for training? When do you get to be fully in the moment with your family?
The workload can be oppressive, and this time drain often doesn't allow for personal growth, movement, improving procedures, or additional certifications, which undermines the individual and, ultimately, the company's growth and goals. When a team feels empowered, well-trained, and has a healthy work-life balance, you are on your way to a high-performing operations team, which is what everyone wants in the end.
In my personal experience, some of that responsibility of maintaining work-life balance must fall to us, as the individual. A side effect of being good at your job is that you may easily become your department's "always available" solution maker. Once you find yourself in the "always available" position, it can be challenging to remove yourself. Work-life balance – let's call it 50/50 – means you need to set boundaries for yourself. You need to be fully aware of any position's requirements before accepting it. Ideally, you also commit to doing things that release stress during your “off” hours. No employer can be held fully responsible if you choose to take your work stress home with you.
Work-Life Balance in Business Aviation
In our industry, some companies choose to get certified by standards programs, like IS-BAO. During those applications and subsequent audits, they are asked, "How do you manage scheduler/dispatcher fatigue?" For some, this is the first time they have ever addressed this question.
Many advocacy groups and certification programs (like IS-BAO) provide guidelines and best practices. However, a lot gets lost when companies enforce loose guidelines, and ultimately, guaranteeing management is implementing them or not. These practices – including the lack of standardization, overwork, unrealistic on-call schedules, the high-stress demand of the job, etc. – lead to schedulers and dispatchers making mistakes due to burnout syndrome, causing more people to leave this position with an increased frequency.
Sustainable & Healthy
In preparation for this blog, I spoke with several professionals who have seen these realities firsthand. Andrew Stylianou of Pfizer told me, "The general culture in aviation is to have someone available all the time – and that's fine – but we need to find ways to make it sustainable and healthy for everyone."
Others pressed the importance of hiring the right people, people with positive attitudes, strong work ethics, and who will gel well with the culture and environment of the organization. Zach O'Malley with Prime Trip Support told me, "I'm a big fan of having a team of experts and relying on them because this makes a huge difference. The quality and effectiveness of your team is strongly aligned with the quality and determination of the people you choose to add to your team."
Invest in Training
As we know, particularly at API, hiring the right people is crucial to the success of any organization. Once you've hired the right people, you must take the time to learn and use each person's unique strengths and skills. After making the right hire, you need to invest in training – not just in theory but also in practice. For example, as a former scheduler/dispatcher, I found tremendous value when the company allowed me to visit a destination where we operated. To know how the aircraft is handled, to see how many steps it took to walk from the aircraft to Customs, to understand what it was like to rent a car or grab a cab from the FBO – all these things made me appreciate what the flight crew goes through, and it allowed me to see my work come to fruition firsthand. This experience was a fundamental game-changer when communicating with the crew, the passengers, and other schedulers and dispatchers.
My intent here isn't to solve these problems; instead, I aim to bring awareness to these unsung workers. Workers who show up day and night behind the scenes, calculating changes before and as they happen, to keep our industry moving. They are just one of many roles in our industry (and workforce as a whole) who experience the unbalanced pressures from work and personal life. As aviation continues to evolve, so do the needs and expectations of every role within the industry. Evolution takes a 360-degree view of the role and responsibilities of someone like a scheduler, balancing their long list of safety regulations, company policies, and pilot needs. All of this must be orchestrated around their continued education, ever-changing flight plans, and dare I say it, their personal needs as an individual outside of their role at work.
Once we bring awareness to a matter, we can begin to improve it. There is not an easy or blanket solution for all departments, but validating the experiences and acknowledging we have room to improve is a great place to start an important conversation we should all take part in.