Is it possible for airline pilots to communicate with dispatchers? If so, what methods do they use? A special radio channel?

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, and it is a regulatory requirement that it is so.

§121.99 Communications facilities—domestic and flag operations.

(a) Each certificate holder conducting domestic or flag operations must show that a two-way communication system, or other means of communication approved by the FAA certificate holding district office, is available over the entire route. The communications may be direct links or via an approved communication link that will provide reliable and rapid communications under normal operating conditions between each airplane and the appropriate dispatch office, and between each airplane and the appropriate air traffic control unit.

The typical way to contact dispatch is through SELCAL which allows two way communications between two specific parties over HF or VHF radio. To contact a dispatcher we would tune the COM associated with SELCAL to the proper frequency (these were charted on company airport pages and you would use one from an airport nearby that you are overflying) and then use our handheld microphone (with keypad) to dial a code for our dispatcher, which is noted on our release paperwork.

As long as you are monitoring a SELCAL frequency and dispatch (or someone else with your aircraft code) calls you, the airplane will announce "SELCAL" and typically a light or some other visual notification will come on.

Once connected, you talk to your dispatcher over that com radio the same as you would talk to ATC. From there your dispatcher can connect you to maintenance, med link, or anyone else you might need to talk to.

For larger airplanes typically used on overwater routes you will probably also find a satellite phone in the cockpit that can be used as an alternative way to call dispatch.

Textual communications to and from dispatch are also possible using ACARS.

  • Umm, don't you mean ARINC? SELCAL is used to alert pilots that ATC wants to talk to them on HF so that they don't have to listen to the static.... – Lnafziger Feb 24 '14 at 20:22
  • @Lnafziger That is one use for SELCAL, but not the only. We used it to call directly to our dispatchers desk (it rang on their phone, and they could call us the same way). For us, SELCAL used the second VHF com radio (we had 3 VHF and no HF comm). – casey Feb 24 '14 at 20:31
  • @Lnafziger as I recall I think we could also do ARINC phone patches through an operator, but I'll have to dig out my manuals to recall the specifics. – casey Feb 24 '14 at 20:44
  • 2
    The two 747 carriers I worked for used Stockholm Radio for HF communications between aircraft and dispatchers, and they could SELCAL us. Individuals could also set up an account by supplying Stockholm Radio with credit card information. They would give you an ID number to use when contacting them. I used to occasionally call my spouse this way. Remember, though, open water, especially calm water, soaks up HF energy, so HF usage in the South Pacific was always a problem. – Terry Feb 24 '14 at 22:05
  • @Terry -- are you talking about groundwave or skywave HF comms? Because I'd think that you'd have no problem reaching well, almost anything you wanted on HF if you knew how to work the skip...amateur radio operators routinely work transoceanic in their HF bands using skywave techniques. – UnrecognizedFallingObject May 23 '15 at 5:37

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