The popularity of domestic flights in Kenya has increased in recent years, with global airlines claiming a piece of the Kenyan market, stirring competition among players.
This has triggered an increase in job opportunities for aviation professionals including pilots, equipment mechanics, air traffic controllers, aerospace programme managers, aviation safety inspectors and flight instructors.
But apart from these roles, someone must ensure that aircrafts fly under the safest weather conditions and are adequately fuelled before they take to the skies.
This is the work of a flight dispatcher, also called a flight operations officer.
Lympia Waithira, 27, is a flight dispatcher with Flex Air Charters at Wilson Airport. She graduated from Moi University with a Bachelor of Business in Aviation Management and holds a diploma in flight dispatch from the East African School of Aviation.
Waithira explains that flight dispatch is a section within an airline’s flight operations department that deals with the planning, scheduling and execution of flights, prior to departure, through the trip to the time the aircraft arrives at its intended destination.
What is the scope of your work as a flight dispatcher?
I am involved with flight preparation procedures, which include determining fuel levels, weather conditions and weight balance. These are the most critical aspects of flight planning.
Fuel management is crucial in this business because fuel constitutes the largest expenditure for any airline. I ensure that the aircraft departs for its destination with sufficient amount of fuel on board. This includes the trip and contingency fuel, holding fuel (in case of delays or unforeseen circumstances) and most importantly, reserve fuel.
I determine this through calculating the distance to be covered in nautical miles and divide this by the cruising speed (knots) of the aircraft type. The consumption rate (fuel burn per hour) is what determines how much fuel will be loaded.
It is also my responsibility to ensure weight balance in the aircraft. An aircraft should have a load sheet that shows how various weights have been distributed on the floor of the aircraft so that the aircraft is within the centre of gravity limits and that the Maximum Take-off Weight (MTOW) isn’t exceeded. We use various computerised systems to get accurate figures.
I receive weather charts from the meteorological department every day and interpret them for pilots. I must understand the prevailing weather conditions in the planned flight route as well as at the destination, which enables all parties to the flight, including the pilot and air traffic controllers, to predict what weather changes to expect along the route and how to mitigate or handle such situations.
I must also determine visibility levels, wind strengths and speeds, cloud levels and intensity. Air turbulence and wind shears are notorious for causing air scares and disasters. In a nutshell, meteorology and aviation are inseparable. I also issue NOTAM (notice to airmen) and TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions) to pilots on such things as the condition of the airport. According to airport operations, the airline captain and flight dispatcher are held equally responsible for the safety of the flight.
What academic and practical qualifications must one have to work as a flight dispatcher?
To be certified as a flight dispatcher, you must undertake a flight dispatch course in an institution approved for aviation training by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA). The course takes nine months. This is followed by exams that test your knowledge in aircraft performance, rules governing the air, operational control and ability to interpret meteorological patterns. Thereafter you get a license from KCAA. One is also required to sit exams in Aviation English and radiotelephony.
What do you enjoy most about your job…
I enjoy solving mathematical problems, which is what my job entails. Working in this industry has also allowed me to travel widely, locally and abroad. Due to the close-knit nature of the industry, I have met and made friends from around the world. I also get to learn about and appreciate how other countries handle their aviation programmes. The pay is also attractive, with starters earning up to Sh80,000 a month.
Every profession has its challenges. What aspects make your job difficult?
That would be the unpredictability of the weather. You may study weather patterns three days before a flight and plan for it, only for drastic weather changes to occur hours to the flight. Such disruptive occurrences cause flight delays, sometimes for several hours, affecting the flight company’s and the clients’ programmes. Sometimes I am forced to work for long hours.
I draw my motivation from one of Richard Branson’s quotes “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later”.
You have only started out in this profession. What career aspirations do you have?
I wish to work in a more involving role that will challenge me to understand aviation in depth. I intend to advance my studies in key aviation areas such as safety and security, operations, quality and maintenance. My fascination is in aviation security and safety. Security is a big deal in the aviation industry, particularly today when there are factors such as terrorism, that threaten the safety of air transport. The first thing you are taught when you join an aviation school is to plan a flight that ensures the safety of the aircraft, personnel and all its operations.
I watch classical movies and listen to saxophone jazz music. I also go out hiking during weekends.