Updated October 24, 2016
There have been several important changes to both the FAA domestic and ICAO flight plan formats. Some of these changes will help controllers more readily identify aircraft capabilities while others will make it easier for pilots to communicate what they can and can’t do within the NextGen system. As we continue towards the NextGen environment with initiatives like the Collaborative Trajectory Options Program (CTOP) coming on line, it is more important than ever for pilots to be able to file a flight plan that accurately represents both the crew and aircraft capabilities within that system.
Domestic Flight Plan Equipment Suffix Changes
The FAA has updated the equipment suffixes for the domestic flight plan format to more accurately indicate the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) capabilities of an aircraft. The information reflected by the current suffixes now allows controllers to make better routing decisions; for example, a controller will now be able to clear a GNSS-equipped aircraft for a more direct route through non-radar airspace. Previously, routings through non-radar airspace were not available, even for GNSS-equipped aircraft. Aircraft that are RNAV-equipped but without GNSS capability will still require radar monitoring.
However, operators should only use the domestic flight plan format and current suffixes when they have RNAV capability but do not require Performance Based Navigation (PBN) routing (for example RNAV SIDs and/or STARs). A list of the current suffixes available for use in the domestic FAA flight plan can be found in the Updated Aeronautical Information Manual – Domestic Flight Plan Aircraft Equipment Suffixes.
ICAO Format Flight Plan Changes
While the FAA prefers that operators file an ICAO format flight plan for all flights, the ICAO format must be used when the flight will enter international airspace (including Oceanic airspace controlled by FAA facilities), when the flight expects routing or separation based on Performance Based Navigation (PBN) such as RNAV 1, the flight will enter RVSM airspace or the flight expects services based on ADS-B.
The one change that is likely to have the most significant impact on operators is the newly enforced requirement to enter PBN/ information in field 18 if the user enters an ‘R’ in field 10 to indicate PBN capabilities. Failing to express the PBN capabilities in field 18 after entering the ‘R’ in field 10 will now result in a rejected flight plan. The only other code entered in field 10 that requires guidance to be entered in field 18 is the ‘Z’ (other capabilities), which when entered in field 10 requires operators to indicate their other capabilities using COM/, NAV/ or DAT/ in field 18.
An additional change was moving from the NAV/ requirement to the PBN/ requirement. However, operators now have the option to use the NAV/ with the PBN/ in order to indicate that they would prefer an assigned RNAV arrival but a conventional departure, or vice versa.
When working with the PBN/ information, it is imperative that operators file only equipment and PBN/ for which the aircraft is qualified, for which the operator has approval, and for which the crew is qualified. All three conditional requirements could change on any given flight. To help pilots & operators better understand the complicated connection between the required ICAO flight plan codes and the operational approvals, the NBAA Access Committee spent significant time and effort to work with the FAA and NBAA Members to create FAA ICAO Operational Approval Guidance Table.
Pilots & operators need to tie the ICAO flight plan codes together with their operational approvals in order to file the correct codes. The aircraft manufacturers are of limited assistance since they provide guidance on the “capabilities” of their aircraft, but not necessarily operational approval. For example, an airplane may be RNP 4 capable, but without OpSpec/MSpec/Part 91 LOA, the pilot/operator should never file the code for RNP 4 when operating in airspace where RNP 4 is applied (e.g. WATRS). Doing so may result them being assigned an RNP 4 route. Pilots/operators must understand that RNAV/RNP level approval in one airspace area may not mean that they are approved to operate at the same RNAV/RNP level in a different airspace because the Navigation Specifications for that airspace may be different. Flight plan codes are dynamic and can change with each flight. Unfortunately, the flight plan automation systems used by some of the flight plan service providers can lead the pilot down the wrong path unless there is knowledgeable intervention by the service provider.