November 7, 2018
“Each triangle represents 50 mph and each line 10 mph so the jet stream at this point on the Atlantic is 180mph.” Ben Bohan-Jones and Joe Rennie, two of our pilot cadets, are explaining weather maps to me. It’s a fascinating world and one they’ve both become experts on in the last few months. I’m glad they know what they’re talking about.
As part of their cadet training, Ben and Joe spend time in different areas of the airline. This gives them a better understanding of the many support functions that enable them to fly safely. This year, that time was extended so we could bring our new Airbus A330-200s into the fleet and train the new pilots that joined us from Monarch Airways. For Ben and Joe, their initial disappointment at a delay in their cadet programme turned out to have a silver lining – a secondment to our flight planning team.
The flight plan is a series of documents that give our pilots all the information they need for a particular flight. Its primary job is to get the aircraft to its destination safely, in the most economical way possible.
“We needed some help in the department due to some challenges with our summer flying programme,” said Erika Lelovicova, our flight planning supervisor. “The cadets brought their pilot mentality to the job and came with all the necessary knowledge of aviation weather, navigation, aircraft performance and company policies. It made perfect sense to train them on the flight planning systems and let them help us out.”
The flight plan is a series of documents that give our pilots all the information they need for a particular flight. Its primary job is to get the aircraft to its destination safely, in the most economical way possible. By doing that we keep costs down, keep airfares down and keep our carbon burn down. That’s important stuff, and our handcrafted flight plans (shorthaul planning can be automated, long-haul still relies on manual input from the flight planner) are designed to get it exactly right.
The journey of a flight plan starts when a number of different routes are auto-generated by a flight planning system. These feed our flights onto the tracks that run through the sky like motorways across the Atlantic Ocean. The flight planners then build the flight plan on the available routings and start with some historical data such as airport taxi times and holding patterns. Other things they consider are:
In the hours before departure, a flight plan is a living document that can change minute by minute, literally with the winds. Or if there’s any alteration to the number of customers or the amount of baggage and cargo onboard. The plan can change right up to departure time, but at two and a half hours before take-off, it’s filed with NATS (the air traffic control service). It is then combined with all the NOTAMS, the weather, upper wind, significant weather and ETOPS charts. This is then all uploaded into the pilots portal for them to download onto the tablets they take onboard the flight.
It is the job of Erika’s team to deliver plans to our pilots that they can use with total confidence. Of course, things can change during the flight – that’s where the pilot’s skill comes into it – but the plan is the starting point. As Ben and Joe talk about their few months in flight planning, it’s clear this was a fantastic opportunity for them.
“We did the more basic plans – mostly East Coast flights – leaving the more challenging ones to the more experienced planners,” said Ben. “There are so many contingencies in place. So much thought goes into the process. Every pilot should spend a few days with the flight planners to understand how well trained and knowledgeable they are. I now know that throughout my flying career I’ll always have total trust in the flight plans.”
“Being integrated into the Operations Control Centre (OCC) has given me so much confidence in our wider operation,” said Joe. “I did witness one technical diversion when a flight had to land in Canada. It’s then you see all our operational teams really come together. Just watching was a great learning curve and psychologically, as a pilot, I will benefit greatly from knowing what happens at the other end of the radio.”
As part of our pilot cadet scheme Ben and Joe had already visited air traffic control and followed our aircraft despatch team. They were then sent to Vienna for a week where our flight planning software company SABRE are located. Here they got a deep understanding of the systems they would use as flight planners.
Flight planning is always evolving. According to Erika the next significant improvements to flight planning will be around avoiding turbulence. Sophisticated systems are coming online which study eddy dissipation in the upper atmospheres and can give planners and pilots much more accurate plots of turbulence.
If you think you’d like a career in flight planning, you’ll need to be able to work day and night shifts. You’ll also need to be meticulous, focused, have excellent attention to detail and not be distracted. There is no established way into the role. A lot of planners start work in the operations team, many with backgrounds in flight dispatch. Any applicants have to be able to decode weather forecast and significant weather charts, NOTAMs (notice for airmen) and read aeronautical charts, understand aviation meteorology and performance so some sort of an aviation background. But be prepared to work hard, all planners go through a 12 week in-house training course, 6 weeks of which are in the classroom.