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How to plan a long-haul flight

You may have caught a glimpse inside the cockpit when boarding a flight and seen the pilots looking over the flight plan before pushing back and taking off. And there’s every chance you would have assumed that they would have spent the previous few hours putting that plan together themselves.

Joe Minihane

However, at Finnair, there’s a team of dedicated flight planners that plan each flight meticulously, allowing pilots to concentrate on the vital job of flying passengers and cargo from A to B safely.

For long haul flights, such planning starts up to a year before takeoff. Depending on the destination, different papers need to be ready for each season, something that’s especially true when flying to China. With this basic route planning in place, the work of the flight planners can then begin focusing on specific details for each flight.

“Certain stuff is always the same,” says flight planner Annariina Ruuskanen. “We do all the pre-calculations once we know what kind of cargo is coming and how many passengers will be on board, working out how heavy the aircraft is. But you never know how many other things you have to take into consideration, it’s infinite.”

The team at Finnair can face a number of challenges when planning a flight and need to be rigorous in their research. That means keeping a constant eye on the news for any political issues or flashpoints occurring on the ground beneath the flight path, as well as checking weather forecasts for the likes of hurricanes and typhoons.

Each flight planner must ensure that they don’t send their flight through unsafe airspace. Doing so could mean pilots taking redirection from air traffic control, using up more fuel than planned and having to make an unscheduled landing in order to refuel and continue their journey.

In a normal eight-hour-shift, Finnair’s flight planning team can plan five or six long haul flights, around six to ten hours before they take off. Short-haul flights to most European airports are automated, meaning the team are largely focused on planning trips to destinations thousands of miles from Helsinki.

The pilots arrive and collect their flight plans from them each day, ready to take passengers and cargo across the globe. Pilots can always call and say what they would like to do on the flight, but then they don’t always know the restrictions and what the rules might be that day. “At Finnair they really appreciate the work that’s done for them,” says Ruuskanen.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has changed things for the team. There are fewer flights to plan on a daily basis and long term planning has been made much more difficult by the uncertainty surrounding the future of travel.

Long-term planners are looking at summer and fall 2021, but at the moment that’s very, very difficult because they don’t know what is going to happen. This is a unique situation for them. Right now, nobody knows where people want to travel next year.

Once things start to get back to normal, however, they will be working harder than ever to get Finnair’s flight plans perfect and everyone moving once more.


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