Airport Assessment 101: Careful Planning Is Key

 - February 26, 2021, 12:32 PM

Planning is vital to any flying mission and speakers at the NBAA Flight Operations Conference Airport Assessment 101 webinar drove home that point with valuable advice on preparing for operations into high-use airports such as Teterboro in New Jersey to less traveled international destinations with antiquated facilities and poorly maintained runways.

“Generally, the first thing I [do] is look for an airport that has our minimum runway requirements,” said Chad Patnode, flight operations manager at Pfizer. But, obviously, it doesn't stop there. “You have a lot of characteristics, a lot of quirks, both domestic and international, that may not be so obvious, such as a wavy runway. Airport security is a big thing; will your aircraft, will your crewmembers and passengers be in a safe area? Is there a lack of fencing, for example?”

Patnode also stressed the importance of knowing whether an airport can accommodate an airplane as big as a Gulfstream G650, for example. “So what allows us to have a successful process is proactivity,” he explained. “You do not want to come across these issues, these challenges when you get to the airport. You want to try to identify them before you get there.”

Pfizer’s flight department uses an in-house checklist for any airport to which its airplanes travel, which Patnode said “organically” grew as it came across new concerns or challenges. Although the checklist often asks for a yes or no answer, it also recommends the next steps. “We’re not just here to check boxes,” he remarked. “You want to take those next steps. Do you talk to your manager? Do you talk to your chief pilot? And it allows for a smooth process.”

The information in the checklist comes from a range of sources, added Patnode, such as instrument charts, airport facility directories, ground agents, Notams, and, in the case of an international flight, the aeronautical information publication (AIP) for whatever country applies. “If it’s a very complicated part of the world we haven’t gone to, I know for some approaches we look at YouTube videos to see what the approach is,” he said. “With ground agents, though, I’ve probably received the best information from those folks.”

Appearing on the webinar with Patnode, 32-year veteran corporate pilot Steve Feldman stressed the value of a simple phone call to the airport manager when he questions the accuracy of published information such as airport improvements. “There are many times you’ll get the information from, say, the PCN [pavement classification number] that just seems to be really low,” said Feldman. “There seems to be a lag between the improvement time and the time of publications of [chart supplements] or AIPs.”  

As much of the planning function overlaps, pilots and dispatchers must collaborate on risk assessment. Dispatchers rely largely on publications and phone calls while the flight crew serves as the “boots on the ground,” remarked Feldman. “Feedback is extremely important,” he said. “What might be written in an AIP or something about surface conditions or lighting, we can go in as the flight crew and say ‘this runway is horrendous and it’s not safe to operate.’”

Feldman said that his flight department’s risk assessment group consists of two safety pilots, a standards and training pilot, the dispatcher, and pilot adjunct in the operations control center. While Feldman’s flight department is big enough to dedicate time to in-house production, outside vendors can also produce risk assessments for a fee. Feldman also recommended the pilot forum on the NBAA website from where pilots can get and offer feedback.

“The important thing is that the process takes place,” he stressed. “We’re well past the days of getting into an airplane, looking at an approach chart, and saying ‘yes, it’s got an instrument approach…We’re good to go.’ So the important thing is to have the conversation, have a process in place, and be well prepared for the flight.”