International operations are picking up again as the global COVID-19 crisis seemingly becomes more manageable. However, civil unrest, political instability and even regional or civil wars make some airspace hazardous to overfly. How do you know your trip route is safe? How can you mitigate the risk of trips that might be over or near hazardous airspace? What resources are available to help you plan your trip?
“Business aircraft operators don’t have the resources airlines do, but they often use international trip support vendors,” said Steve Thorpe, an international captain for a pharmaceutical company and former chair of NBAA’s International Operators Committee. “These vendors certainly provide a valuable service, but the best information often comes from people who have been there [to the destination].”
The OPSGROUP provides such a platform for pilots, dispatchers and other aviation professionals to share information and mitigate risks. The group was formed after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down near the Ukraine-Russia border during the war in Donbas in 2014. At the time, some airlines seemed to know the airspace where the incident occurred was unsafe and had been avoiding the area, but there was no forum in which to share the information with other airlines or aircraft operators.
Unfortunately, MH17 crashed, claiming the lives of 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers.
“Regardless of our employer, we’re pilots first. Why don’t we share information about these risks?”
MARK ZEE OPSGROUP
Another source for international flight information is NBAA’s International Operations web page (nbaa.org/intl), which features reports on eight different regions of the globe, along with information regarding customs and regulatory issues, oceanic flying and volcanic activity. This NBAA web resource also includes the International Feedback Database, which is a great way to review information about specific overseas destinations. And if your company has recently flown internationally, share your insights in the database to help colleagues manage the challenges of international operations.
“Regardless of our employer, we’re pilots first,” said Mark Zee, founder of OPSGROUP. “Why don’t we share information about these risks? How can a single operator manage all the information necessary for international operations, especially when the information changes often?”
Start With Government Sources
What resources are available to pilots, dispatchers and others involved in trip planning and execution?
The U.S. Department of State provides several valuable resources, many of which are fed by consular officials on the ground reporting actual conditions.
Thorpe recommends using the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which enables travelers to register information about trips abroad so that U.S. embassies and consulates can assist in an emergency. The State Department also provides detailed country information including travel advisories, alerts and other details.
Special Federal Aviation Regulations (SFARs) and Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMS) often provide very granular information regarding hazardous regions. However, sometimes the language is hard to read, and the information isn’t necessarily timely.
Safeairspace.net is a free tool, independent of political or commercial motivation, which visually presents conflict zones and risks and even provides plain-language text from NOTAMs and advisories issued by multiple states.
Finally, consider using third-party vendors to assist with intelligence reporting and international handling. Knowing all permits and paperwork are in order takes one task off the pilots, who can focus on mitigating other risks. This is especially important if you’re a novice to international flying or trip planning.
Experts advise operators not to rely on government agencies to provide up-to-the-minute information on hazards or conflict zones. For example, do not count on your aviation authority to tell you what the risk is, and certainly do not rely on the country you’re flying to (or over) to provide you with accurate information. Government information from hazardous nations can be especially unreliable since most countries don’t want to discourage business or tourism within their borders.
“We have to make sure we’re actively seeking information, rather than waiting for it to come to us. ”
DAVID MUMFORD International Operations Specialist, OPSGROUP
Even if you have authorization to overfly or operate in hazardous airspace, once you’re in the air, the experts caution you’re basically on your own. So, operators must find out about all potential risks before taking off. It’s up to the pilot and operator to be proactive so they can confidently mitigate airspace risk.
“We have to make sure we’re actively seeking information, rather than waiting for it to come to us,” declared OPSGROUP International Operations Specialist David Mumford, who suggests reaching out to pilots who have been to the destination before, especially someone who has been there recently. This proactive step is critical to determining the actual risk.
The Risk is Never Zero
Thorpe shared an example of a 2021 trip, during which his company transported Ebola vaccines to Guinea for the World Health Organization. Planning for that trip had several challenges, including avoiding hazardous airspace; mitigation strategies for CO₂ due to dry ice; an unusual request for a belt loader to be available for a business aircraft; and extremely dusty conditions at the destination, where airport infrastructure doesn’t support low-minimum approaches. The trip went off without a hitch and the vaccines arrived safely, on time, but it illustrates the importance of careful planning.
Of course, risk is never zero. Thorpe advises pilots to make sure to understand what their organization’s acceptable level of risk is. “We mitigate risk to the lowest acceptable level to conduct our trips, but we know that level is never zero,” said Thorpe.
Always have a contingency plan. When Thorpe plans international routes that could overfly potentially hazardous airspace, he considers routes that avoid that airspace altogether. Or, if an overflight is deemed an acceptable risk, he treats the hazardous airspace the same way as he would treat flying over water, calculating an equal time point to determine safe diversion airports.
“We mitigate risk to the lowest acceptable level to conduct our trips, but we know that level is never zero. ”
STEVE THORPE International Captain for a pharmaceutical company
However, whenever possible, the safest option is simply not to overfly a country you wouldn’t want to land in, Zee said.
Share What You Learn
Perhaps the most important aspect of international trip planning is to share the information you learn with the aviation community as a whole. “Keep the information loop going,” urges Mumford.
After two years of limited travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many international operators admit they are a little rusty when it comes to international flying. Therefore, experts recommend that operators spend extra time preparing for their next international trip in order to avoid hazardous airspace or mitigate the risk if flying through such airspace is necessary.
Review NBAA’s international flying resources at nbaa.org/intl.
The Experts’ Checklist
Here are the key steps to mitigate the risks of hazardous airspace and conflict zones.
- Research your trip so you’re aware of security threats and hazards on the ground in advance.
- Consider emergency and abnormal procedures.
- Make sure you have extra fuel for potential diversions around conflict zones.
- If aircraft will be operating in conflict zones, review deferrable maintenance items to be sure you can get out of the region without requiring maintenance.
- Plan for diversions. If your flight is in the vicinity of prohibited airspace, be sure your diversion route avoids that airspace.
- Have an awareness of the potential political implications if diverting into some regions with certain nationalities onboard. If you divert there, what will happen to your passengers and crew, and why?
- Report hazards. Share your experiences.
Learn More at the International Operators Conference
By attending NBAA’s International Operators Conference – slated to be held March 14-16 in Los Angeles, CA – operators can learn more about avoiding hazardous airspace and other international operations hot topics. The meeting also offers opportunities to learn from your colleagues’ international operations experiences.