Flight Planning and Flight Watch are important "behind the scenes" requirements of most airlines and are integral to flight safety. They are two of the many hidden necessities of an airline that the flying public are generally unaware even exist. Yet without these crucial departments, and the teams of highly trained individuals within them, flights would not be able to depart. Although they appear to have different functions, their close operational connection with one another generally means they are contained within the same department.
Before a commercial airliner can depart on its journey, a flight plan and fuel plan are required. The flight plan is submitted to Air Traffic Control (ATC). This crucial information informs ATC of a number of important details regarding the flight. The complex task of creating flight plans for airlines today is generally the responsibility of a dedicated flight planning department. Important information like weather, NOTAMs (notices to airmen) and other pertinent information is carefully checked to ensure a safe flight can be carried out along the intended route.
Flight planners are aided by computer systems which enable flight plans to be filed quickly, accurately, via the shortest distance and at the most optimum altitude. Less distance means less time in the air and less fuel required. Also, jet engines are most efficient at higher altitudes, so the higher an aircraft can fly, the more fuel will be saved.
Some of the more important information contained within a flight plan are:
- Aircraft registration and flight number.
- The planned route that the flight is intended to follow.
- The planned altitude and speed.
- Alternate destination airports in the event a diversion is required for any reason.
Fuel planning is also a major part of preparing a flight plan. An aircraft must have enough fuel on board to enable it to conduct a flight safely to its destination. Also, in case a landing cannot be achieved, due to inclement weather or an obstruction on the runway, additional fuel must also be included for the aircraft to continue to an alternate airport. As mentioned above, preparing a flight plan so the route covers the least distance and operates at optimal altitudes is vitally important to achieve the best possible fuel economy. Therefore, by requiring less fuel, extra weight capacity is available for payload (cargo and/or passengers). From a financial perspective this represents huge savings on fuel costs, and increased revenue due to optimal payload capacity.
Here is a simplified example of the various components of a fuel plan:
- A to B fuel (fuel from origin to destination)
- B to C Fuel (fuel from destination to alternate)
- Holding fuel
- Contingency fuel
- Legal reserve (generally 30 minutes for turbine aircraft and only to be used for emergencies)
The sum of all these components would represent the minimum fuel that is required for a particular flight.
Even after a flight has departed on its journey, its progress is tracked by Flight Watch. Because flights are routinely airborne for many hours, there are often changes to the en-route conditions that were not forecast or known about prior to the flights departure. Issues like weather changes, airspace closures and airport closures are a few examples. Issues like these can be communicated to aircrews along with any consequences they might have on the flight plan and fuel plan. Flight Watch and aircrews can communicate via several methods. Sat-phone, HF (high frequency long range) radio and ACARS (digital datalink service) are the most common.
Some key features of a Flight Watch service are:
- Flight tracking.
- Decision support.
- Situational awareness.
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