Evaluate what you have in-house and hire an ISP based on your needs.
By Grant McLaren
Many international ops are straightforward and self-manageable, but this is not always the case. If you’re just going to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean on a regular basis, these trips can often be planned and managed successfully in-house.
Larger corporate flight departments which have robust internal scheduling/dispatching capabilities also prefer to manage certain longer overseas trips using their own personnel and resources.
However, if you have a smaller flight department and you’re flying to a new far-flung international destination for time-sensitive meetings, you’ll usually benefit from outsourcing trip planning and day-of-operation support to an effective international support provider (ISP).
“If you’re flying somewhere new, especially to smaller airports, there’s a lot that can go sideways and/or unravel for the unprepared,” says ITPS Sr Ops Specialist Curt Kurshildgen. “To ensure the most successful outcome for your trip, you’ll want to take advantage of all resources available to you.
Using online flight planning software and making direct arrangements with local handlers could leave you open to unnecessary complications.”
From self service to full service and beyond
These days, all manner of ever-improving scheduling software and robo-planning options are available.
At the same time, there are more ISP service options, ranging from small boutique-style operations to large providers with their own personnel stationed globally. While low-cost robo-style trip planning options make sense for some operators, others demand high levels of personal service with enhanced support around the world.
“I’ve worked on both sides – as a dispatcher with a major US flight department, and as an ISP today,” says UAS Ops Mgr Duke LeDuc. “There’s no set answer on what might be the best trip planning partner for you, as this depends on your organization, your operational patterns, and unique requirements of your passengers.
Large ISPs have names you can depend on, but, at times, I’ve found I was better served dealing with smaller, more nimble ISPs. You need to do your own due diligence in terms of what options are best for you.”
For a first trip to remote destinations, LeDuc recommends not to do your trip planning in-house or with online software options, particularly with passengers who like to change schedules. “You might think you have everything lined up, but, if things start changing on the day of operation, you could get into trouble,” he says.
“If an international trip goes sideways, you might potentially frustrate a multimillion-dollar deal, and you won’t have your job for long.” “One danger, particularly for new general aviation international operators, is in assuming that trips may be easy,” says ITPS Ops Mgr Ben Fuller.
“You may think that a simple trip to AUA (Oranjestad, Aruba) will be straightforward, but, if you’re not up to date on nav fee payments, you may be stopped. You may also run into issues with overflight and landing permits, frustrating an otherwise successful operation.
Keep in mind that, if you run into difficulties working with a local ground handler, it could be difficult at that point to transfer oversight quickly to an ISP.” Working with a good ISP is an effective way to enhance a flight department’s international capability without significantly expanding its staff.
This tends to increase a company’s level of comfort when doing business in different parts of the world. Be mindful, however, that things have the potential to go wrong when operating internationally. “A ground handler may not show up, or customs/immigration may forget to stamp your gendec, and your aircraft could be impounded at the next stop,” points out Avfuel Acct Mgr David Kang.
“There was a recent case at OVB (Novosibirsk, Russia) where an aircraft was held and impounded for over 2 months because paperwork had not been stamped correctly at the previous departure point.”
Choosing the best ISP
When choosing an ISP, the first step is to determine the level of support you need. Are you running a small 1- or 2-aircraft flight department with a single scheduler?
Are you a large operation with multiple aircraft and dispatchers on the job 24/7? Should something go wrong overseas, how will you deal with it, and what are your options?
In such cases you may benefit from using an ISP who is both an effective problem solver and is familiar with the regions in which you’ll be operating. Once you’ve assessed your needs, look for an ISP that is not only fully accessible 24/7, but has stringent processes in place for selecting and verifying ground handlers and 3rd-party service vendors, and can access credit around the world.
In Ethiopia and parts of central Africa, for example, services are normally paid for with cash. It may not be easy to set up credit directly, and you’ll usually be better to piggyback on ISP credit. If you’re looking for a full-service ISP, be sure that they’re easy to reach if things go wrong.
Will you be assigned a particular trip support specialist or trip support team? Or will you have to repeat who you are and explain your situation to everybody you’re transferred to? Whether you choose to work with a large ISP, a smaller boutique-style operation, or one that has specific strengths and presence in a particular region, communication is key.
The ISP needs to have a robust profile on your operation, and and understand your needs and preferences fully in order to be able to deal effectively with critical short-notice situations. “This relationship cannot be built overnight,” says Jeppesen Business Consultant Nance Pierce.
“If you start early and develop a relationship with your selected ISP, they’ll be better positioned to take action fast and assist appropriately when a day-of-operation event calls for it.” Keep in mind that success of an international mission is not just avoiding the hazards of a ground handler malfunction, a denied permit, or an impounded aircraft.
“From the passenger perspective, the success of a trip depends on all the little details involved in the flight,” says Pierce. “If the local transport does not show up on time, this can be a real problem. But something as simple as getting whole milk, instead of preferred 1% milk, having mayonnaise on a sandwich, or not uplifting sufficient ice, can cause a trip to be perceived by passengers as a failure.”
Small vs larger ISPs
While excellent ISPs exist throughout the spectrum, operators may perceive pros and cons in terms of dealing with a large established ISP versus a newer or start-up operation. “With larger ISPs, you know what you’re going to get, and they tend to offer better pricing and more software options,” notes Kang.
“Getting personalized help, however, may be an issue at times. Smaller ISPs may not have all the software options, so they must win based on service.
They’re often start-ups with guys who used to work for the bigger companies, and they can, at times, be more knowledgeable with a higher level of personalized service. One drawback of smaller ISPs may be a lack of physical resources and less flexibility on pricing.
If you’re just flying to CSL (Cabo San Lucas, Mexico), the differences really do not matter.” It’s important to do your own due diligence. “Everyone will promise the same thing, but it’s not all the same,” advises LeDuc.
“Get recommendations from other flight departments which require the same types of services you require, consider an ISP’s areas of strength, its footprint around the world, and its local connections. Some ISPs do not have the ability to highly tailor a service, so you may need to fit into their structure.
For some operators, a smaller boutique-style ISP may be the best and most flexible solution.”
When things go wrong overseas
If things go sideways on an international trip, the first step is to contact your local handler and ISP. Preferably, you’ll have a dedicated team or team member available to assist you, and they’ll have your trip and profile at their fingertips.
From time to time, we hear of self-handled flight departments contacting ISPs at the last minute to take over and solve issues the operator ran into on the day of operation.
“In some cases, operators may be leaving the next day and want a new ISP to take over,” adds Pierce. “While we are happy to assist, it’s important to be realistic in terms of each individual service that needs to be changed, particularly in terms of short-notice permit changes.”
Fuller points out that a good ISP will work to keep you out of problems before they materialize. “The key is to avoid potential problems in advance by being aware of airport and/or noise curfews, permit and airport slot flexibility, and by having geopolitical awareness,” he says.
“Some countries may be best not to overfly due to potential security concerns, and some international airports are best avoided if you think you may need flexibility to change schedule and leave on very short notice.”
While it’s great to be able to call someone for a rescue if things go wrong, the best option is not to put yourself in the position of having to be rescued in the first place. Always discuss with your ISP, ahead of your trip, what you’re trying to accomplish.
This way they can help steer you clear of potential issues and limitations.
There are, of course, costs to using ISPs as opposed to managing it all on your own. Certain private operators and charter providers are more focused on cost and are willing to take some of the trip planning in house.
However, you also need to consider your mission profiles, your passenger needs, and risk tolerance for things not going well. The reason why companies use business aviation is so they can reduce worry about mission success.
If a CEO has to wonder whether an international trip will go smoothly, this defeats the purpose of having an in-house flight department. Using ISPs for trip planning and support has the benefit of allowing you to run a smaller flight department, as you can rely on 24/7 outside support.
On the other hand, having to deal with lot of different outside vendors and accounts payable adds challenges to a corporate structure. While ISPs may add 15% or so to the services for which they provide credit, you’ll get a clear presentation of all trip costs.
Pierce adds, “There are so many large and small fees involved with an international trip that, if you’re self managing, it can be difficult to audit and comprehend all the different 3rd-party invoices. And setting up overseas credit on your own can be a challenge.”
When traveling the world, prices you pay do not always equate to perceived level of service. “You might pay $10,000 or $12,000 for ground handing in Western Europe and not have a particularly good experience,” says Kurshildgen.
“On the other hand, you may pay $2000 for a perceived higher level of handling service in Costa Rica.” When things start to go wrong, you want someone who understands your mission and can ensure the success of your trip.
However, although we usually get what we pay for, it may be possible to haggle on ISP pricing at times. “It’s easier to do this with a bigger company on account of their large physical infrastructure and personnel, and particularly if you prove you’ll bring volume,” notes Kang. “Smaller ISPs may not have the same options in terms of price negotiation.”
It’s relatively easy these days to put together an international trip using online flight planning software, and establishing individual arrangements with ground handlers.
Challenges, however, come into play when you need to change schedule and begin moving arrangements around. “Once you start making changes, you have to plan on how to mitigate potential challenges,” says LeDuc.
“Things don’t always go to plan and they can start to unravel. The CEO may be late for the departure, catering may not show up, curfews may kick in, there could be parking issues at the next stop, and there may be slot time, permit, and other issues to contend with.
It can all start to snowball. You’re dealing with all these different moving pieces that need approvals from different authorities.” Kang concludes, “In choosing trip support options, it comes down to what you have in-house, what you’re willing to do to get the service levels you want, and how much tolerance you have for things to go wrong on the day of operation.”