Planning your international bizav trip should involve professional dispatch support.
By J. Peter Berendsen
ATP/CFII. Boeing 747, MD11 Contributing Writer
This way we would know what’s going on in the world, whether there were political disturbances, riots, crisis, natural catastrophes, and so forth.
Of course, our official preparation for flight started at the dispatch office or online, but this instructor reminded us that we also had to have a larger situational awareness.
In that spirit, I listened to the radio news while driving to the airport in late spring 2014 for a flight from FRA (Frankfurt, Germany) to DEL (Delhi, India). The Crimea crisis was well underway and now there was also armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine in the area of Donetsk.
I thought that this would probably affect our route, as we normally flew through the Kharkov FIR, north of the Black Sea. But I was wrong. The route presented to us by the dispatch went right over the war zone in eastern Ukraine because it was the cheapest and quickest way.
I called the dispatch office and asked why we were not avoiding the conflict zone. The dispatcher, who was required to rely on a largely automated flight planning system, told me that he had to follow company policy as there were no NOTAMS for upper airspace above FL290, and no restrictions on civil overflights.
Out of my responsibility for passengers, crew, and aircraft, I had the route planned differently, via the Black Sea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. The dispatcher agreed, but needed the captain’s decision as the flight time was 2 minutes longer, and he could not incur the associated cost.
In the end it was my – the captain’s – decision, so that’s how we flew. But I am sure the FO probably thought it was time for me to retire because I was too old and overcautious. A few weeks later, while on vacation and sailing in the Norwegian Sea, we arrived in the port of Bergen, Norway.
The headline in the local newspaper reported that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had been shot down over eastern Ukraine, with all 298 people on board dead. I felt shocked and very sad because I knew the reason why many other pilots had not objected the company preferred planned routing.
I actually know the captain of an Airbus A340 that was right ahead of Flight MH17. As a former Air Force pilot, he had asked the same questions I asked, but in the end he agreed with the planned route, believing in the information provided to him by his company.
The reason why Ukraine only limited the NOTAM to below FL290 at the time was simply to not discourage overflights as they needed the overflight fees to finance government infrastructure. This caused automated NOTAM analysis systems to not mark this airspace as critical.
Work with international service providers
I tell you this story because not everything can be seen in the dispatch documents that you receive for the required flight. An automatically generated dispatch briefing may not be enough for international routes.
Only an experienced dispatcher at a good international service provider (ISP) will provide you with the whole picture, plus additional information that is not strictly required by FAA as part of the briefing.
Many flight departments have upgraded their briefing requirements to include security, political risk, and public health issues, in addition to large weather systems like hurricanes and tropical storms.
While adverse weather still has the same critical impact on flight operations, it seems as if security and health issues are primary concerns right now. During the current pandemic, it is always a good idea to have an overview of Covid-related regulations in countries that you fly over.
This is especially true for countries within Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand. Hong Kong, for example, has very restrictive rules, including isolating crew members in single rooms in Covid camps if they test positive upon arrival or during their stay.
Christine Vamvakas, Universal Weather and Aviation senior account manager, sales, confirms that a traditional briefing package alone is no longer enough. In the age of Covid, comprehensive trip feasibility is the #1 thing operators must take into account when planning a mission.
Researching and fact-checking can be a time-consuming process. Vamvakas says that operators need to consider things like continually-evolving Covid entry restrictions affecting both passengers and crew (sometimes), testing requirements, and the ability to arrange testing abroad, travel histories and vaccination status, vaccine validity windows, ground logistics procedures and how these continue to change, supply chain availability, crew/pax visa entry requirements, peak periods, and availability of services.
Determining feasibility of a trip
“We’ve put serious effort on feasibility – putting all the information operators need into one place, keeping it current, checking quality constantly, and making it available to our customers,” declares Vamvakas.
“Covid restrictions often change with little notice. With the pandemic, we’ve seen it happen where a last-minute regulatory change is issued that affects a flight en route. That’s where our close monitoring of global restrictions with the help of our Universal Global Network shines.” It is important to see your ISP as your complete mission management provider.
Large ISPs have a global network of locations and agents who can respond locally to unexpected regulations or geopolitical events. The local ISP agent can work with government and airport officials to minimize potential trip disruptions.
Dispatchers are key
With all the software support a good ISP provides to pilots and dispatchers, in the end, it is the human who reviews all this information and makes recommendations or decisions.
A knowledgeable dispatcher will be able to condense a complex briefing package into the essentials that an experienced international crew needs. Sometimes, a brief phone call between pilots and dispatcher is the most efficient way to get across the main points of a particular flight.
Since so much information is available on the Internet for free right now, many pilots will have a basic idea about weather patterns, aircraft technical issues, and airport and country restrictions as they come to the preflight briefing.
However, a good dispatcher will be able to summarize all this information and highlight the main concerns for the flight crew.
What should you expect from your ISP?
First, of course, your ISP will provide you with an operational flight plan comprising the details of your flight from departure to destination, including your filed alternate and other enroute alternate airports you might consider.
Second is a good collection of weather charts, wind charts, prognostic charts, and, hopefully, a vertical profile of your flight showing weather and turbulence. Nowadays we can expect multicolored charts in electronic format that include weather, airspace structure, and turbulence overlays along your route of flight.
Some ISPs include important ATC features such as the ever changing North Atlantic Track (NAT) structure. If you fly the NATs, if possible, depart the US in the evening, and leave Europe in the morning.
This way you have many more flight levels available, as you are going with the flow of the airlines. If you go the opposite way, you may have very few flight levels available and could end up at either very low or very high flight levels that may not be the optimum for your aircraft.
Make sure that the right charts are there for your flight’s timeframe. A nice feature is also the graphical depiction of METARs and TAFs, with the relevant parts highlighted according to your planned times of departure and arrival. If you encounter a departure delay, make sure the weather is updated.
Flying around weather
Satellite imagery is important, especially if you fly through areas of convective weather. Depending on inflight connectivity, you may even be better off with live satellite imagery through your provider.
If you don’t have that, your dispatcher at your ISP should be able to follow the flight and communicate routing recommendations to you as you face large weather systems that are beyond your aircraft’s radar range.
Especially on flights from north to south through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), you may find that weather systems may require deviations of several hundred miles. I remember flying from Buenos Aires, Argentina to European destinations a number of years ago.
While enroute over the south Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil, our dispatcher advised about a much better route further to the East over West Africa. He transmitted satellite imagery and secured the overflight permits through several African nations as we made our way north.
After landing, I went to see the dispatcher personally and thanked him, as he had spent the night with us, even while on the ground. Volcanic ash has been an issue in recent years.
Many of us remember that European airspace was closed for almost 10 days in 2010 due to a volcano eruption in Iceland.
Volcanic eruptions are a fact of life on Earth, and have diverse effects on aviation. While you may be able to operate quite closely to volcanic ash clouds in many cases, you may incur higher maintenance cost for additional inspections. A good dispatcher will suggest alternatives for your operation.
Enroute medical diversions are more common then technical diversions. In both cases you need experience and knowledge on the ground at your ISP to handle the organization of your diversion.
While your telemedical contractor may recommend a certain airport to divert, it is the work of your dispatcher that makes the diversion actually smooth and successful. Operators and ISPs often research and compare how certain airports are better suited for different types of diversions.
YQX (Gander NL, Canada) is great to refuel, but not the first location to go to with a medical diversion. The same applies to TER (Lajes, Azores). Instead, patients would need to be flown to PDL (Ponta Delgada, Azores).
The bottom line is that you should not attempt an overseas flight without support from an ISP. The work and recommendations of a good dispatcher can compensate in savings in overflight fees, handling charges, and fuel costs.
And to know that one team member is on the ground, watching your flights progress as you soar through the night, entrusted with the wellbeing of your guests and crew, should be of great comfort to the pilots.