A Brief History of Flight Deck Briefing Packages – from Early Delivery Methods to Today
Communication of flight plans, weather, and service requirements between 3rd-party providers and operators has evolved and vastly changed over recent decades. In fact, over the past 50 years, we’ve probably witnessed the most dramatic advancements in communications since the Wright brothers. This all bodes well for today’s corporate flight crew, who now enjoys access to truly remarkable labor-saving capabilities in terms of flight plan, weather, and operational communications.
1. The early days of flight plan and weather deliveries
Telegraph and radio were the first electronic means of delivering flight plans and weather, and this was followed by Telex, Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network (AFTN) – the first truly worldwide communications network -, SITA, and ARINC. Back in the 1950s, rudimentary computer flight plan systems began to emerge – some based on computer punch cards – and these were mostly used by airlines. Weather data from government sources was typically manipulated by hand and delivered by Telex. While feeding long Telex tapes into noisy machines (and hoping those 20 – 30 ft. long tapes would not break) seems archaic today, this was at one time the state of the art in weather delivery. In the early 1970s, we also had access to early generation fax machines. By the late 1970s, first-generation portable computer flight plan terminals, using acoustic phone couplers and thermal paper, provided a leap forward in terms of on-the-go flight planning capability.
2. Challenges with deliveries in the early days
ARINC, SITA, and fax offered significant advances over Telex transmission; however, they were not without issues. While ARINC and SITA were more reliable delivery methods, Telex was still cheaper. ARINC and SITA charged per character, and at that time filing flight plans this way could be very expensive. Early fax machines were not great, and it took time for this technology to mature. Fax machines would run out of paper and ink, and hotel faxes were often inaccessible to crews, depending upon time of day. In the early days, there was no direct-input method to flight management systems (FMS), and crews had to insert all information manually. These early delivery methods, however, were all that was available until more reliable options emerged over time.
3. Costs incurred with early deliveries
While delivery costs using early electronic communications methods were often high, the efficiency advantage of early generation computer flight plans justified these costs. Over time, computer flight plan technology and delivery methods improved dramatically. The process became faster and cheaper with fewer errors and less requirement for manual input.
4. Evolution from previous delivery methods to the operational briefing package
Over time, flight plan package deliveries grew to 30+ page mammoth documentation extravaganzas, and it became cumbersome to send all of this material by fax. Often these briefing packages were faxed to multiple recipients, including the crew’s hotel and the local ground handler, with high associated communications costs. E-mail transmission eventually replaced some usage of the slow, illegible, and costly fax deliveries. However, there were still issues with the crew’s ability to receive the associated e-mail attachments at certain locations, and file size caps sometimes posed an issue with larger deliveries.
5. Today’s delivery technology with mobile apps
With the mobile device apps available today, the entire process of filing flight plans, loading flight plans to the FMS, and accessing a full range of weather options has changed. There’s no longer a need to carry all sorts of paperwork on international trips, there’s no longer dependency on hotel fax machines, and flight plans and weather can be managed from smartphones and tablets in all four corners of the world. Reliability and ease of use of new mobile technology applications has revolutionized our industry. We have access to global databases and weather forecasts within seconds and can quickly change/view flight plans or catering/services orders, to name a few, at any moment, from wherever we happen to be. Using a smartphone or tablet allows crews to easily review schedules and view the latest updates to services, flight plans, weather, etc.
6. How important has this transition been?
Today, flight departments routinely use Internet and mobile devices for almost all pre-flight and operational deliveries, and crews are using mobile devices to manage all operational aspects of a trip while on the road. Digital versions of flight plans and weather are clear, accurate, and reliable, without any of the former issues of running out of ink or paper.
This migration to mobile usage has been dramatic. For instance, here at Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc., we see that over one third of all the operational briefing packages we deliver are being done via Apple® iPad® apps. This has significantly reduced fax requests and associated costs of delivery, such as hotel charges for printing flight plan deliveries. Assorted apps have transformed the way in which we operate internationally. There are, however, still issues with connectivity in some areas of the world, and airborne Internet connectivity, particularly broadband Internet access aloft, is still in an evolutionary state. Looking to the future, however, we anticipate broadband data capabilities in the flight deck to become the norm.
7. Are there still hard copy requirements?
As per FAA regulations, many deliveries still need to be printed and maintained for 30 days. There are also times when a crew needs to print flight plans, aviation fuel releases, and weather or ground handler service confirmations. Many flight departments address these issues by installing wireless printers on flight decks to print flight plans, weather, and assorted trip briefings. Additionally, many crews now carry portable printers while on the road. This allows the crew to show up at the aircraft with the latest information and any printed documentation requirements they may need.
8. What are some tips in managing deliveries?
Ensure that your 3rd-party provider is utilizing the latest apps and delivery communications in order to take advantage of the broadest range of delivery options. Delivery technology is constantly evolving, and 3rd-party providers are moving quickly to support all of these new forms of technology. Best practice is to research all of the new delivery options and apps for business-aviation flight planning, weather, and support service coordination, to determine the optimum fit for your particular organization.
If the trends we’re seeing don’t change, and we see no reason for current advances in delivery technology and adoption to slow or change, we expect to see the majority of flight plan, weather, and service coordination deliveries via mobile devices and apps within the next year. Adoption of mobile delivery technology offers significant advantages for flight departments, dispatchers, and crews on the road, and this is truly one of the good news stories in the world of business aviation today.
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If you have any questions about this article, contact Christine Vamvakas at firstname.lastname@example.org.