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Flying Abroad: Mapping Out the Considerations

The time and complexities involved with planning an international flight have led a number of companies to use third-party providers to handle the intricacies. There are a variety of companies available to handle this process, though other flight departments have determined it makes financial sense to bring their flight planning operations in-house instead. Each approach has its benefits and potential complications.

In general, planning an international flight involves the same basic steps. From the time a customer requests the flight, the route must be determined and crew duty and fuel needs factored in. A thorough review of any overflight permits, arrival and departure slots, and airport curfew times must follow, with the necessary time to obtain approvals provided in advance of the flight’s departure. That process may take anywhere from a few hours for a flight to London, to possibly several weeks for a trip to the Middle East or China. As companies gain familiarity with certain routes, the appeal of planning a flight themselves becomes stronger.

Third-Party Service Providers Stress Experience

In addition to the complexities of planning a trip overseas, personnel must also be available to respond to last-minute changes just before a flight begins or even after it is underway. This is one area where things may become difficult quickly, and it’s an example third-party service providers feel give their operations an advantage.

“The level of expertise we provide is probably the biggest advantage we offer to customers,” said Ted Glogovac, product manager for international trip planning services at Jeppesen. “We have established relationships with those supporting the aircraft overseas, including ground handlers and vendors, as well as the civil aviation authorities. You may be able to plan for certain things on your own, but heaven forbid if a visa is missing, or there’s a problem with a crew member. Utilizing a service provider affords a fallback for contingencies. We live and breathe flight planning.”

Matt Pahl, manager of flight operations services for Rockwell Collins Ascend flight planning, also cited experience as a key factor when choosing to go with a third-party service. “A dedicated flight planning service provides operators with experts whose only focus is international flight planning and route analysis,” he said. “For operators who may only fly internationally on occasion, this level of expertise ensures that their route is optimized, all necessary documents and permits are in place and when the flight plan is filed, it is readily accepted by air traffic control authorities.

“This level of service comes at a cost to the operator,” Pahl added, “but the value and peace of mind the service provides is extremely important to international pilots and their flight departments.”

In-House Departments Focus on Personal Relationships

Of course, the possibility of saving money is a considerable lure to a company seeking to handle its own flight planning. Montreal-based Execaire formed its own international flight department in 1997 to work in conjunction with its aircraft management, maintenance, and regional and international operations services.

“The financial benefits of that move were passed on to our customers,” said Gilbert Adam, manager of international operations at Execaire. “We also retain all customer data, instead of giving it out to third parties. If a customer needs to make a sudden change, we can action the event right way. Having control of that process leads to a quicker response time, and also allows us to recognize customer trends, so if something comes up, we can better anticipate those needs.”

“We’re not divulging a customer’s sensitive information to another party,” added Giovanni Pipino, manager of dispatch services for the company. “There are many situations where customers don’t want their travel information out there, due to the competitiveness of the industry.”

The 1998 merger between Citibank and Travelers Group created one of the most experienced international flight planning departments in existence, dating back almost 60 years. “The paramount factor was better control of our infrastructure for company travel, so we don’t have to wait for a third-party handler to tell us when our permit comes in. This was followed closely by the cost-savings of bringing international travel requirements in-house,” said Jim Moore, manager of Citigroup Corporate Aviation. “We operate to basically 105 countries, and monitor our performance very closely. For many years, approximately 70 percent of our travel was international; since 2011 that’s increased to 85 percent.”

That’s not to say there aren’t some drawbacks in having an in-house flight department. Moore noted that any flight planning department must be flexible and ready for contingencies, and that may be difficult when running a smaller operation. “It’s hard to have everything go perfectly well all year long,” he noted, “though in my experience, when there’s a minor glitch, we’ll take the heat for it regardless of whether it’s actually a third-party handler’s error. If someone screws up, we want control of it.”

Staffing Requirements Vary

The staffing level required to operate an international flight planning operation varies, depending on the services provided and the size of the company.

Pahl noted Rockwell Collins Ascend employs well over 100 flight planners, meteorologists and operations personnel, in five countries.

Glogovac estimated “a few hundred” people work in support of flight planning operations at Jeppesen, with associates staffing 10 flight departments around the world.

Approximately 30 people support Citigroup’s international flight planning department. “We have to be a 24-hour operation,” Moore noted. “We operate throughout the world and can’t be one of those departments that closes at 5 p.m. when you have to call China to check on the status of a permit.”

Execaire’s Pipino said his company employs about 16 people throughout its flight planning operation, which includes flight services, crew scheduling and dispatch. That smaller size does not mean the department couldn’t handle complex operations, however. “We recently handled a month-long operation that saw the customer fly to China via Madrid, then on to Rwanda and Tanzania, then back to Spain,” he said.

Managing Expectations Is Important, Too

Regardless of whether it’s a third-party management provider discussing travel plans with a client, or coordinating a trip for an executive in your own company, one common factor stressed by all is the need to manage a client’s expectations, and advise them of the time necessary to do the job right.

“The interaction with the customer begins with the notification of a new trip and the exchange of details specific to the trip,” Pahl said. “Our operations team consults with the client to ensure operational feasibility. The next step involves executing the specific customer requirements, such as flight planning and route analysis, securing country approvals for overflight and landing, and arranging ground handling and other related services.”

“When a new [Citigroup] executive comes onboard, we send out a packet including flight department contact and request information,” Moore noted. “We also provide a list – ‘if you’re looking at these destinations, please provide the following lead times.’ That way, nothing is a surprise for them. At the time of the actual trip, we assign a single point of contact.”

Pipino noted an occasional need to “train” an Execaire customer, particularly someone unfamiliar with the processes involved in international flying. “For example, one of the most difficult situations we’ve encountered is when two customers have the same type of aircraft and want to fly to the same airport, but we need to tell one of them they won’t be able to land there, because they’re operating commercially and the other is flying privately,” he said. “That can occasionally be a difficult conversation.

“Our customers often started in smaller aircraft and have grown to using business jets,” he concluded. “We sometimes need to coach the customer on what they expect and what they are asking for, versus what we can do.”

Keeping Travel Documents Secure in a Digital World

In this ever-evolving, high-tech world, keeping paper and electronic documents safe overseas is increasingly complex. If you travel to certain countries, the confidential files on your laptop could be compromised. Walk through the airport and you could become a victim of identity theft. Use the free Wi-Fi signal on the road and your computer’s security could be breached.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we advised people to have shredders on board airplanes because most documents were paper. But now we’ve evolved pretty much to an electronic society,” said Charlie LeBlanc, president of security services with FrontierMEDEX (formerly ASI Group). “So now, when we worry about having documents or files compromised, we’re not necessarily thinking of paper.”

As the good guys play catch-up, there are ways to safeguard your personal “papers.” First of all, always keep your passport on you (ideally in a travel pouch underneath your clothes). And if the passport was printed in October 2006 or later, assume it has an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip in it. That’s good news because it provides another level of authentication, but bad news because the bad guys can read it, too. Anyone with an RFID reader (available in stores like RadioShack) can get your name, birthdate, birthplace, nationality and a copy of your photo in a snap, according to Christopher Davis, president of G3 Visas & Passports, Inc. However, you can get a lightweight RFID-blocking passport case for around $20. (Stick your credit cards and driver’s license in the case, too, since some have the chip as well.)

If you travel to the Middle East, especially Israel, you can request a second passport from the Department of State. Davis has two and keeps them in separate places – generally one is in his hotel room’s safe. (Try opening your room’s safe with “9999” first since that code is sometimes used by housekeeping.)

Since free Wi-Fi has vulnerabilities, keep usage on such networks to a minimum and consider using encrypted e-mail, a MiFi system (compact wireless routers that act as mobile WiFi hot spots), or a virtual-private network, which allows “a private encrypted tunnel from where you are to your server when you need to transmit sensitive data,” said Davis.

“Also, give your IT group excruciating detail about how you use your laptop and mobile devices, and the countries you visit. They can create protocols to keep you safe,” said LeBlanc.

The pros offer some additional tips:

  • Delete everything on your laptop’s local hard drive and use encrypted thumb drives with locks.
  • Install Lojack for Laptops, which enables you to locate, lock and delete the data on your computer before it falls into the wrong hands and may even help you recover a stolen laptop.
  • Travel with several color copies of your passport (in case you need a replacement; some overseas hotels also accept them).
  • Instruct crewmembers to remove documents left on board the plane.
  • Use at least seven-character passwords whenever possible, and enable your devices to destroy their data after 10 failed password attempts.

Tips of the Trade

Planning an international flight can be a challenging endeavor for even the most experienced operators. Here are a few suggestions on how to make sure your bases are covered before you take off.

  • Make a list of all the contacts you’ve spoken with throughout the process of planning your flight. This information will prove invaluable should you need to make last-minute revisions to your itinerary.
  • Check the foreign travel requirements of your insurance policy, including special coverages needed and any exclusions. Some countries (including Mexico) require third-party coverage.
  • Verify what immunizations are needed to travel to your destination country. Some vaccines need to be administered over an extended period of time prior to a trip. Also, keep a list of any medications your passengers are carrying, and advise them to carry extra amounts should the trip be extended. Keep all prescription medications in their original labeled containers.
  • Confirm all lodging before departure, and make sure the facilities meet company travel requirements for safety and security. When possible, coordinate all lodging directly with hotel staff.
  • Brief your passengers on factors that may require changes to the planned itinerary, including airport curfews, slot allocations or weather.
  • Check whether the service providers you’ve lined up accept credit cards for fuel purchases and payment of airport or aviation authority fees.
  • Have your aircraft fueled after landing to avoid subsequent departure delays. This is of particular benefit at slot-controlled airports.
  • Be ready for inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture upon your return from a foreign country, and notify passengers of this possibility.
  • Even if you intend to handle your own flight planning eventually, many operators recommend using a third-party service for your first trip outside the United States. There is no substitute for experience.
  • When in doubt, ask! NBAA’s Air Mail enables operators to offer advice, compare notes with their peers and gain tips about what others have learned from operating on certain routes and areas. Also, the International Operations page of NBAA’s web site includes an online guide on what to consider when planning an international flight.
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