Contending With Operational Flight Planning Challenges
This year’s NBAA EBACE will include a session that focuses on flight planning challenges in today’s environment, including changes in air traffic management, regulations, and other large events impacting access to airports and airspace. The challenges are many; in some cases, they are genuine “showstoppers,” in others they will require extra planning to ensure your schedule is achievable.
Challenge: unfriendly airspace. As the situation in Ukraine continues through 2023, the airspace remains off limits for obvious reasons, but they are not alone in the “no fly” category. Recent North Korean missile launches near Japanese airspace can make large chunks of normal routes unusable with little or no notice. Your problems are not limited to acts of war, however. GPS jamming can render large swaths of airspace unusable. In March and April of 2023, for example, controllers at the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center filed reports of GPS jamming coming from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, affecting civilian air traffic. In at least one instance, a private jet was steered unknowingly into restricted airspace.
Challenge: unfriendly Air Traffic Control (ATC). In some parts of the world—most notably, China—you cannot plan on optimum high flight levels as a foreign registered aircraft, nor can you assume you will get more direct routing even if the airspace is devoid of other traffic.
Challenge: system-wide congestion due to weather or other issues. In the United States, adverse weather in one part of the country can bottleneck aircraft flow, forcing ground stops in other parts of the country where the weather is not a problem. We have seen recently how a computer glitch in airline scheduling software or in the FAA NOTAM system can also abruptly halt the flow of aircraft to a stop.
Challenge: regulatory changes needed to improve airspace capacity. Changes to the North Atlantic High Level Airspace (NAT-HLA), for example, impact not only where you can fly, but the equipment needed to fly. These changes tend to be announced in January of each year, and if you do not have V.2023-1 of NAT Doc 007, released January 2023, you are out of date. Changes to other areas of the world are not as well publicized but can be of equal importance.
These challenges and many others have required us to radically change the ways we’ve been able to flight plan over the years. A few years ago, an Air Force C-21A (Learjet 35A) was intercepted over a war zone in Azerbaijan because they were using commercially available flight-planning software that did not include current airspace restrictions. The days of sitting down with an E-6B circular slide rule and book of charts to produce a flight plan are long gone. You cannot flight plan without good up-to-date intelligence about recent airspace changes and restrictions. Fortunately, help is available.
Solution: a good International Service Provider (ISP). The best defense for not getting caught unaware of changes to airspace availability is to have an ally dealing with a high volume of aircraft using the same airspace. If you want to fly from Singapore to Germany, for example, an ISP who has successfully planned such a flight on similar aircraft will arm you with the needed intel. They will know if you cannot fly at optimal altitudes and what routing will be off limits to you.
Solution: ops.group. The greatest single repository of current intel is from the website ops.group. Their subscriber base includes hundreds of airlines and thousands of other operators, who provide the best intel of all. Ops.group is a well-known resource for learning about dangerous airspace, as well as permit requirements and other country-specific oddities. Subscriptions run $35/month for an individual or $10/person/month for a team plan. It is money well spent.
Solution: social media. If you are planning a flight that you have never before attempted, various aviation chat groups can connect you to someone with recent experience. “Has anyone flown from Beijing to Paris?” can get you recent intel not available elsewhere. My favorites: National Business Aviation Association (nbaa.org), Universal Weather & Aviation, Inc. (universalweather.com), and the Facebook “Professional Jet Pilots” group with over 15,000 members. Another great source of information is flightradar24.com, where you can watch the actual flow of aircraft to and from airports on your itinerary.
Solution: inflight Internet access. A flight of 5, 10 and even 15 hr. can leave your flight planning out of date. Airspace that was NOTAM-free when you took off can be a warzone by the time you arrive overhead. Weather forecasting is far from an exact science and what you expected while checking in online an hour before your flight can be completely changed. Being able to check the weather, NOTAMS, your ISP and even the news en route can prevent you from becoming a part of the news when you land.
Solution: plans B, C, D, and so on. The best defense against many of these challenges is to have preplanned alternate options. A friend of mine who routinely flies from Hong Kong to London takes care to plan on expected and not preferred altitudes. He routinely obtains permits and reservations for several diversion airports en route. In the years he’s been doing this, he has only had to use his Plan B once. But having that and a few other options in his hip pocket has greatly increased his confidence that his flight planning will have made his trips successful.