Since 1981, Corporate Angel Network (CAN) — to which Savoya donates ground travel services — has placed nearly 60,000 cancer patients on private planes to travel to and from treatment. If that sounds like a simple thing to do, it is anything but. Every single flight represents hours of work and planning on the part of at least two business aviation schedulers.
It begins with CAN executive director Gina Russo, or her staff of flight coordinators, convincing patients who are in a battle for their lives to take the ride. Many are intimidated, don’t understand business aviation or fear they’ll be a bother. Then they have to work with the schedulers and dispatchers of their partner organizations — like Pepsico — to find a flight that’s going between the necessary two cities on the same day.
From there, the CAN staff vets patients to ensure they’re able to fly, preps them on proper attire and decorum, arranges for family members to join them when necessary, provides for their comfort on the plane and arranges for equally comfortable ground transportation when they land. “I’m not putting someone who just had lung cancer surgery in an Uber,” Russo said, “telling them to stand on the curb and look for a green Toyota with this license plate….”
Meanwhile, the schedulers who work for the plane’s owner have an executive or a team to get from one place to another on time, safely and efficiently, with a mandate to avoid wasted hours and “dead heads,” empty planes traversing the country. They arrange for the crew, the fuel, the food and drink, clearance to land in the destination airport and ground transportation. Simultaneously, they have to contend with security issues, schedule changes and shifting weather patterns — and that’s on an easy trip.
Most people don’t know much about business aviation. If they think about private planes at all, it’s as a luxury utilized only by the most exclusive travelers. The idea that corporations save millions in productivity with private fleets, or that high-asset individuals face a variety of genuine security risks — not only for themselves but for other passengers — on commercial flights isn’t talked about much.
And if they don’t think about the private planes themselves, most people certainly don’t know about the teams of highly trained flight schedulers and dispatchers who, thanks to their ability to pull rabbits out of hats, make nearly 25 million flight hours possible every year. Even those within companies and organizations they serve often fail to see or understand the important work being done by these travel handlers.
The Sky’s the Limit
When it comes to the specific work schedulers and dispatchers do, the sky is — quite literally — the limit. Even the fundamentals, Glenn Hausmann, Manager of the LaGuardia Learning Center for FlightSafety said, evoke the expression, “drinking from a fire hose.”
FlightSafety trains, certifies and licenses schedulers and dispatchers on everything from weather interpretation (meteorology), to aircraft performance and weight balance calculations, to Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) interpretation and application.
“Memorizing a regulation and applying a regulation can be very different skill sets,” Hausmann says. “Just because you can recite a regulation from rote memory does not mean you know what the impact on aircraft operations is.”
In addition, he explains, every curriculum is integrated with Dispatch Resource Management (DRM), defined as, “the effective use of all available resources to assure safe and efficient operation, reduce error, avoid stress and increase efficiency.”
“DRM training addresses the challenge of optimizing communication between diverse groups within an airline and the related interpersonal issues while using available resources,” Hausmann says. “This includes effective team building, conflict resolution, situational awareness, information transfer and dissemination, problem solving, decision making, and dealing with automated systems.” All of these skills factor into successfully executing a role most people aren’t aware exists at all.
Then there are all the other things schedulers and dispatchers do to meet client expectations — which, according to Lindsay Dyer, founder of business aviation concierge service LDAviation, can include a lot of interesting things. Once, for example, she had to figure out how to race a tie to the airport for a client who’d forgotten his.
“I have one client who will bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home and another who always wants to bring along high dollar chefs from wherever we are to cook high dollar meals…like Dungeness crab.”
Dyer has the luxury of choosing her clients; she then builds a relationship with them, sending them Christmas cards and learning more about their families.
“We try never to say no,” she said. “We’ll say, we can’t do this option, but we have option B and option C…. The clients we look for are the ones who want to be part of a team and who respect everyone’s position, who feel like every single piece is essential, including us.”
Dyer has one client who usually travels internationally and almost never gives her more than six hours warning, which can be a challenge given the potential for inclement weather or airports that are too backed up to accept any more flights. But it isn’t negligence on the client’s part; his delays are due to security concerns — another huge factor in her job.
“Most of this is not just pleasure flying. They’re making a movie, or trying to pick up a new client,” she explains, and they don’t want the media or general public to know they’re coming. So they block out their tail numbers and Dyer will make up “a weird pseudonym like ‘cucumber.’”
“I know, and Lori (Knoper, her business partner) knows who it is, but nobody else knows.” Safety considerations — and Dyer’s responsibilities — extend past wheels down. Once the client arrives on the ground, if the name, the phone number, and the license plate of the driver don’t match the information they have, that passenger won’t get in the car.
Behind the Curtain
Dyer has been in the business for 20 years. Having started out by getting her pilot’s license, she then decided she wanted the opportunity to travel, but not the requirements associated with flying. So she tried other jobs in the travel industry. After working as a scheduler/dispatcher, Dyer then took a two-year hiatus to try other things, like ticketing.
“But nothing else was as fun as this, so I came back to it,” she said. “Every day is different. I can’t stand doing the same thing every day. Doing the same thing every week is hard. I have endless opportunities to learn.”
She also sees herself as a key performer in helping business get done and drive the ecosystem. Many of the flights she helps orchestrate enable high-level negotiations and deal explorations that impact the working lives of thousands or millions of people. For example, executives may turn to private aviation because they want to talk about a merger with a potential partner without the whole world knowing (and potentially sending the companies’ stock prices teetering out of control). Then there are purely altruistic scenarios where she plays a role in private planes rescuing people after natural disasters.
CAN’s Gina Russo understands these sentiments. A clinical psychologist by training, she began her career helping patients who were experiencing the onset of symptoms of psychosis to cope with the mental health conditions that would redefine their lives. She later transitioned to working with cancer patients and their families who — similarly, had a disease to contend with that would change their lives. As her focus moved to patient and family experience, she eventually became executive director of patient access and education at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society before CAN asked her to lead their efforts.
Cancer, she said, takes an enormous emotional and psychological — as well as physical and financial — toll. And providing an opportunity for cancer patients to get to and from their treatments in privacy and comfort, safe from the potentially germ-infested environment of commercial airports and planes, resolves a major source of stress for these patients.
“What I heard over and over and over again was twofold: ‘How am I going to pay for this treatment and how am I going to get to one of these two treatment centers?”
A quarter of a million people have to travel for treatment every year. Many of these have compromised immune systems. And they feel bad. The rigors of travel, the risks of sitting next to someone who might also be sick, are too much for them. But their travel doesn’t just benefit them, according to Russo.
“Getting people to clinical trials and specialized care where they receive top treatment moves the science forward. Getting people cutting-edge therapies at places like Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins actually helps us find the answers to some really pressing questions about the disease.”
Facilitating these goals means that her schedulers have to have exceptional bedside manner to be able to work compassionately with patients, but they also have to be able to set boundaries. And they have their own unique set of problems to solve for patients.
“The ideal time frame is a week, but we have turned things around in as short as 12-24 hours,” she describes. Her schedulers have to call the patient’s doctor to ensure they can board the plane on their own, that they’re not on oxygen or an IV, and that they’re safe to fly. Schedulers must also verify that the patient actually has an appointment when and where they say they do and they have to prep the patient with the rules — like no alcohol on the plane, even if it’s offered.
CAN works with more than 500 organizations, Russo said, and she’s impressed by the skills of their schedulers and dispatchers.
“The most important skill is truly the attention to detail,” she states, “to make sure they know everything about that plane and everybody who will be on that plane. They’re handling everything from ground, to meal service, to the manifest, to the flight plan — strategizing and being creative in real time.”
The Risk of Invisibility
The breadth of skills and the range of expertise schedulers and dispatchers bring to the table are undeniable. Whether working in corporate offices and ensuring top-level executives arrive for key meetings on-time and refreshed — ready to tackle the big priorities ahead of them — or helping patients facing devastating illnesses get the care they need, these travel handlers possess an extraordinary arsenal of resources, even if most of the world isn’t aware they exist.
There may be satisfaction in working behind-the-scenes and flying under-the-radar, but there’s risk as well. When something goes wrong in the world of scheduling and dispatching, the impact is felt immediately and negative repercussions often ensue. Yet when things go right, the work of these teams can feel practically invisible. Without awareness into the way these unsung heroes control myriad details to keep trips running smoothly, the importance their critical role plays risks being diminished — and credit may not always be given where credit is due.
Susan Lahey is an Austin-based freelance journalist who has covered everything from Artificial Intelligence and health technology to art and earthship construction. She writes extensively about the rapidly evolving world of customer service and its critical role in business.