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Planning, Multiple Crews Key to Long-Distance Missions

As business opportunities continue to grow in Asia and other far-flung corners of the globe, international business flights are increasing, but it takes planning and smart logistics to ensure company decision-makers reach their destinations in time to clinch that deal.

To arrive with a crew that is not fatigued requires careful planning and usually means prepositioning another crew before the trip begins. Most companies also find the use of international handlers to be essential.

Prepositioning Crews Is Key

Global destinations – even to remote parts of China – make up the majority of trips at Pfizer, keeping its 50 flight department employees busy. “We go to some unique destinations,” said Jim Kelly, assistant director of operations.

The decision to preposition crews depends on destination, weather, departure times and the distance of each leg. A typical Asian trip for a company like Pfizer would likely begin with a crew – two pilots and a flight attendant – flying by airline to Anchorage two days before the company plane leaves its home base.

A second crew brings the company airplane to Anchorage, and the trip continues with the first crew flying the business aircraft to Asia. The crew that flew the company plane to Anchorage then returns by airline to New Jersey. Pfizer has managed up to three simultaneous international flights using that approach, said Ron Overholt, the company’s director of operations.

“We've visited 22 different cities in China in the last two years, [and] the number of international flights continues to increase each year.”

Ron Weight
Chief Pilot, Honeywell

Maintenance technicians, especially those qualified as flight attendants, are also part of the crew. Someone who can both repair the aircraft and service passengers is unusual, added Kelly. “We want our mechanics rested, so they’re airlined up first.”

Pfizer flew its Gulfstream to Luzhou, China in July 2009. Luzhou, a military airbase once used by the fabled World War II Flying Tigers, isn’t even on the map. The trip took three months of planning and coordination, said Kelly. The Chinese government sponsored the trip to thank Pfizer for its humanitarian support during a 2008 earthquake.

Having a flight attendant prepositioned ahead of the trip can also be a big advantage in coordinating catering and restocking supplies with an inbound company airplane, said Judy Reif, an international contract flight attendant. That person can take care of details such as locating English-language newspapers. “Passengers want to keep up with current events,” she said.

Up to half the flights at Honeywell are long international flights to China, India and Australia. “We’ve visited 22 different cities in China in the last two years,” recalls Ron Weight, the company’s chief pilot. “The number of international flights continues to increase each year.” Honeywell crews also fly routes to other Far East locations and Latin America.

For many of those destinations, which cross numerous time zones and where a single leg can consume an entire duty day, the company prepositions crews in key locations: Anchorage for Asian locations, Helsinki for India and Hawaii for Australia.

Handlers Can Help

Weight said the company still can manage all the international flying with its current staff, but fills in with contract flight attendants. However, international handlers are an outside source that’s indispensible, he said.

“Handlers not only understand each country's laws; they can plan the best routes by taking into account the latest overflight rules, fees, political climate and airspace restrictions.”

Handlers are employed by international flight planning companies. They are English-speaking, well-connected agents in nearly every country who understand the local expectations and protocols. They meet the aircraft upon arrival, collect the passports and quickly process the crew and passengers through Customs and get them on their way via trustworthy and proven ground transportation. Handlers not only understand each country’s laws; they can plan the best routes by taking into account the latest overflight rules, fees, political climate and airspace restrictions. They also advise on accommodations and security and suggest specific steps to take to protect passengers, crew and aircraft.

Handlers are a necessity at AIG Insurance, where most of the company’s flights – about 80 percent, according to operations director Franklin Davis – are international. AIG prepositions crews in Rome for Singapore and Anchorage for Hong Kong and Japan. “We wouldn’t be able to get around the world without handlers,” Davis said.

Air Routing International (ARI) is one of dozens of handlers managing business aircraft flights. “We study the route, verify documents and airspace permits, and contact the sponsor,” explains Bris Gannett, ARI’s director of flight operations. “We make sure you’re legal and take care of any special requirements. The pilot’s only concern is flying the airplane.”

Flights into China and India can be particularly tricky because changes to flight plans are discouraged. Sometimes it’s easier to report the aircraft delayed than it is to reschedule a new arrival time, because the latter option involves applying for a new landing permit. The same applies for departures. If you expect to leave at a later time, it’s easier to report the aircraft as delayed, says Tonie Gorham, a trip planner at Universal Weather & Aviation.

International Flight Planning Resources

Courses in international flight planning, both initial and refresher, are offered through companies such as FlightSafety International and CAE SimuFlite.

NBAA’s annual International Operators Conference offers opportunities to network and discuss the latest international flying topics with experienced aviators. Pilots also can gain insights from NBAA’s International Feedback Database, an online resource where aircrews share experiences on everything from hotels to customs to dining.

Sites with international navigation and air traffic information guidance include the Eurocontrol web site, which focuses on European flying.

For More Information

Visit the main NBAA International Operations site at

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