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Uncertainty has been a feature of the aviation industry more than ever over the past couple of years. The COVID pandemic caused constant disruption to commercial and private aviation. Changing flight and entry restrictions have made any travel plans subject to change until the last minute. As the pandemic recedes, we are seeing new challenges in Europe with unprecedented airspace restrictions. All this reminds us of the importance of good flight planning and that any plan may need to be changed.


Creating the flight plan

A flight plan is essential for every flight. This must be completed and submitted to ATC in advance of any flight. It also contains vital information for pilots to consider and be aware of.

Flight plan content is mandated by ICAO regulations. This includes:

  • Aircraft details, registration, and callsign
  • Flight rules and the type of flight, including cautions such as wake turbulence category
  • Equipment onboard the aircraft (including navigation capabilities)
  • Departure airport
  • Planned departure time for the flight
  • Planned route details (including planned ATS routes or waypoints)
  • Planned speed and altitudes (including changes along the route)
  • Destination and planned alternative airports
  • Estimated total flight time
  • Fuel endurance information
  • Total passengers onboard

Flight plans could be created by pilots themselves for a smaller operation or private flight, the operator or airline internally, or in collaboration with external planners.

Keeping plans flexible

Flight plans, of course, have been in use for decades. They are often collated with flexibility in mind – more so for private flights than commercial ones. In uncertain times, this is even more important. Last-minute changes could be needed to flight details, departure time, or route. With COVID restrictions on international routes and testing requirements for passengers, some flight plans will not be confirmed until the last minute.

Airspace and route changes

Changes to available airspace are some of the significant obstacles in flight planning. This will affect flight routing and with it many parts of any flight plan.

Such changes are always possible, with shifts in temporary restricted airspace (advised usually through NOTAMs) and is something that flight planners must be aware of. In normal times, however, this is more likely to involve avoiding a military training area or routing around a particular high capacity event.

Recent events have involved much more dramatic short term changes to airspace. COVID restrictions early on, for example, saw many countries close airspace and airports. The events in Russia and Europe in 2022 have led to even more dramatic changes. Closed airspace over has caused many airlines and private operators to have to quickly plan complicated diversions. These changes, in particular, came so suddenly that some aircraft had to re-route in flight.

Conflict based restrictions also remind us of the importance for planners to stay aware of current situations. Flight planners don’t just need to respond to closed airspace and newly introduced restrictions; they need to anticipate and avoid potential problem areas. The fatal shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukraine in 2014 is a terrible reminder of this.

Changing international routes can be complex. Every country has different rules for overflight permits, and these will be harder to arrange with limited notice. Using flight planners with particular regional expertise is very useful in these situations.

Changing other flight logistics as well

It is not just the flight plan that is affected by uncertainty in aviation. There can be challenges with flight logistics such as fuel, staff and aircraft availability. These all need to be dealt with promptly not to affect flight operations and must be incorporated into the flight plan.

Changes to aircraft route or destination will require liaising with ground support and making new handling, crew or onward travel arrangements. Even changes in fuel prices and availability can affect the flight plan – something we may see more of in the coming months.

Final Thoughts

Flight planning and scheduling is never a fixed task. Recent events have certainly highlighted this and continue to do so. More than ever, the flight plan and flight logistics need to be approached flexibly. Seeking expert assistance with plans, especially when international travel and airspace restrictions are involved, can help with timely and cost-effective changes when needed.

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