Ruby
 

A journey into the world of flight planning

By: Dave Gunner

November 7, 2018

Six of our cadet pilots spent their summer in our Flight Planning department. We talk to them to find out about this fascinating and vital function, what goes into building a flight plan and what they learned that will help their careers as pilots.

“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.

Erika Lelovicova in our Operations Control Centre

“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.”

What is a flight plan?

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 language of the flight planner. A chart showing the weather on a flight from Hong Kong to London

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:

  • Overfly costs (All countries charge aircraft that fly over them. The planners weigh up the cost of operating over some of the more expensive countries)
  • Weather en route
  • Which runways are in use (this is dependent on the wind direction).
  • Departure and arrival tracks. Sometimes flights have longer or shorter routes into the runway.
  • Extra fuel needed for anticipated holds or weather en route.
  • Any fuel penalties the aircraft might have. These are anomalies with some aircraft, meaning they burn more fuel than usual.
  • Alternate airports. All flights have plans for if weather or technical issues cause them to divert from their route or arrival airport.
  • ETOPS airfield selection. This is the protocol for flying across oceans on twin-engine aircraft.  It governs how far they can fly from the nearest diversion airfield. Different aircraft types have different limits.
  • How many passengers, how much baggage and how much cargo is onboard (this all affects how fast and high the aircraft can fly)
  • How many customers with connecting flights are onboard (if possible, we will try and speed up the flight for them).
  • The planners then look at the NOTAMs. These are ‘Notices to Airmen’ (a bit sexist that) that tell pilots everything they need to know about any anomalies they might encounter on their route. It can be anything from construction work at airports to airspace restrictions due to heads of state flights.
  • Once the planners have gathered all this information, they fix the speeds and flight levels and then calculate how much fuel the pilots need to order. Finally, they do a ‘gross error check’ of the flight plan to make sure it’s all correct.

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 was great having the cadet pilots here this summer. We got on well together and learned a lot from each other. They saw first-hand how hard we work to deliver a good product and will hopefully spread the word on the line” – Andy Hearn, Flight Planning Specialist

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.

Ben Bohan-Jones and Joe Rennie

“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.”

Fascinating fact: The most complicated flight to plan is our daily service from Heathrow to Hong Kong. With heavy slot restrictions, overflying Russia and the Himalayas and some challenges around Chinese airspace it can take a lot of work.

Training

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.

What does the future hold?

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.

What makes a flight planner?

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.

Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.