Creating a workable ops manual

Many corporate flight depts are choosing to define procedures beyond Part 91 minimums using CEO-approved documents.

By Grant McLaren

PHI Chief Pilot Michael Hurst is committed to maximizing safety of operations. Detailed company ops manuals are aboard every PHI aircraft and are distributed to all pilots.

To have or not to have an operations manual--one signed off on by the company CEO--is the question facing many Part 91 corporate flight departments. An estimated 60% of US-based flight departments have ops manuals in place, but it's a trend clearly on the upswing.

While FAA regs, FARs and OEM operating manuals address flight ops and safety of operations, many operators are choosing to go beyond this with additional stated policies on duty hours, captain's authority/passenger conduct, stated minimum airfield requirements and dispatch procedures.

Corporate flight departments provide the ultimate in flexible, on-demand transport to company personnel. Ops manuals, in this regard, can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand they limit how you can use and deploy your aircraft and crews and can, potentially, be restrictive--barring ops into ASE (Aspen CO) at night, for example, or limiting single-crew long-haul overseas sectors. And, in the event of an incident, you won't have a leg to stand on if FAA, or your insurance company, finds that you've violated stated policies in your ops manual. You have to live by the standards you set. For these reasons some flight departments have made the decision not to commit to company ops manuals.

On the other hand, from a safety and insurance standpoint, it's often beneficial to set out operating standards. From this perspective an ops manual becomes an effective safety tool guaranteeing standards that pilots and flight department management will operate to. In creating an initial ops manual, corporate flight departments often look to NASA studies on fatigue and lean toward Part 121 or 135 crew duty and rest guidelines, thereby tightening up on what can and cannot be accomplished under less rigorous Part 91 rules.

To delve into the subject of ops manuals in greater detail Pro Pilot contacted Capt Doug Spiger, one of America's favorite Bombardier Challenger 604 pilots, who has worked with Fortune 100 corporate flight departments for almost 30 years and has been intimately involved in creating effective, well-thought-out ops manuals.

"I can understand some people's hesitation in raising the bar with a published ops manual, but you really need these standards for professional operations," says Spiger. "The goal of an effective operations manual is not to restrict company aircraft but to give yourself guidelines to provide the safest possible standard of operations to your company."

Nationwide Chief Pilot Mark Hente (L center) conducts a pilot safety meeting at CMH (Intl, Port Columbus OH). Nationwide routinely reviews and updates its flight department ops manual with input from all company pilots.

While many flight departments do not have published ops manuals, this does not mean that they are "cowboy" operations that want to do whatever they want to do and not be governed by anything. In some cases, the prospect of developing and maintaining an ops manual can be daunting, or else it's something that's simply put off. An effective ops manual must be a joint effort of all those involved in the flight department and can be a waste of time unless everyone buys into it.

There are, however, those rare flight departments and CEOs who simply don't want any restrictions beyond Part 91 guidelines. Modern jet aircraft are reliable, and the operators in question may never have had a significant safety incident, but it may be luck more than anything else that's kept everyone alive.

"I'd be very concerned about a pilot or CEO who says 'I would never have an operations manual because of the restrictions," adds Spiger. "If you're an operator who just wants to jump in, light the fire and operate on a shoestring budget, an ops manual is probably not something you're going to want--but in my opinion this attitude does a disservice to your company."

Dallas TX-based Bombardier Challenger 604 Capt Doug Spiger advises that if pilots are not willing to define and stick to a set of flight dept operating procedures, they're not doing the best they can for their company.

The good news is that a well-conceived ops manual does not limit operational flexibility of corporate aircraft unnecessarily. There may be costs involved--including additional layers of upfront planning, more pilots on the payroll and the occasional expense of repositioning crews in the event of very long duty days--but operational flexibility can be maintained while enhancing safety. In addition, with a CEO sign-off on page 1, nobody in the back of the aircraft is likely to exert pressure on the crew to go beyond what's agreed on in the manual.

"If the CEO says this is how it's going to be, it's hard for anyone else to argue with that," says Spiger. "In years of flying with published, CEO-approved ops manuals, we've had some issues with crew duty day limits, but I've only encountered a couple of people who've even remotely challenged it."

Ops manual basics

A first ops manual can be a relatively small document--20 pages or so--defining duty limits and the fact that the pilot is the ultimate authority as signed off by the CEO on page 1. A flight department can put this together internally, networking with other flight departments and keeping in mind that NBAA is a good resource for ops manuals. Or the task can be contracted to a third party.

Corporate flight department ops manuals are always works in progress. "It's not something you just write and forget about," says Spiger. "You're constantly looking to edit it and to add pertinent things."

Spiger has been the "point person" for putting together the ops manual in numerous departments. He notes that putting together an initial 100-page draft document can take 10-12 months.

"I had access to other flight department ops manuals and, based on different experiences I've had over the years, there were things I wanted to see included," says Spiger. "Stage 2 involved revising the draft, making changes that everyone in the department agreed on, and coming up with something the CEO could sign. The entire process can take close to a year, and a half with our 100-page ops manual now residing aboard all 3 company aircraft and in the possession of each of our pilots."

US-registered Bombardier Global Express at GVA (Geneva, Switzerland). This flight department mandates augmented and repositioned crews for long overseas sectors as well as safety cones around aircraft at every stop.

If you wait until you have absolutely everything you think you'll ever need in the initial ops manual, you may never get around to completing the project, advises Spiger. Start with the basics, add what you know you need and come up with something the CEO can endorse. Over time you'll want to add modifications and fine-tune the document. Despite all the research and effort Spiger and his team put into creating their manual, they constantly look for new areas to include in later revisions.


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