Plan ahead for seamless flights to Asia

 - July 8, 2008, 6:18 AM

The infrastructure to support business aviation in Asia is improving, but U.S.- and Europe-based business jet operators and their flight support staff still face challenges.

The biggest hurdle is time. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, where flights can be arranged within a few hours if necessary, most countries in Asia require a minimum of three or four working days to approve a landing permit. Some operators and trip planners have reported waiting months for the correct permits. “Understand that you’re not operating in the U.S. or your home territory,” said Ted Glogovac, product manager for Jeppesen International Trip Planning Services. “Things won’t always happen instantaneously.”

China, one of the most difficult countries to enter, requires at least seven working days to approve a landing permit. “If at all possible, two weeks would be optimum to plan a trip,” said Nancy Pierce, Jeppesen technical sales and support manager. “And that’s a minimum amount. We try our best to meet that, but we might need even more time.”

India, another popular destination, requires a lead time of a month or longer in certain cases. If a passenger requests a trip to an Indian military base, such as Agra Airport, the closest airport to the Taj Mahal, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation requires 30 working days to approve a landing permit, according to Jeff Newberry, senior international planner for Jet Aviation. “You have to subtract weekends and holidays, so in reality you’re talking about a lead time of 45 days before the trip,” he said.

Some travelers opt instead to fly into New Delhi, a three-hour drive from the Taj Mahal. The lead time for New Delhi is seven working days. “General aviation aircraft wouldn’t normally use a military base, but there are certain circumstances where the closest airport to the passenger’s destination is a military airport,” Newberry said. “And passengers want to go to the closest possible airport to minimize travel.”

Another challenge operators face is that no two countries’ applications are alike. Each trip has to be arranged case by case. “As much as people would like to think there is some kind of worldwide standard, there isn’t,” Newberry said. “Each country determines its own requirements and application forms.”

China requires particularly detailed information on the permit applications, Pierce said. In addition to specific information about the passengers, including the purpose of the flight, China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) also requires the crewmembers’ name, date of birth, nationality and passport number and expiration date.

China also requires flight crewmembers to carry a special crewmember visa (C Visa). “A crewmember who operates with a business or tourist visa could be detained, deported or fined,” said Newberry. “The authorities are very particular about the category of visa.” This could pose a problem if a crewmember arrives in China on an airline flight but joins a business jet as a crewmember. “The crewmember would essentially need two different categories of visa,” he explained. “We try to avoid making any crew additions or changes within mainland China because of the complications.”

China also requires passengers to obtain a local sponsor who coordinates the flight details with local authorities. In some cases, not having the right sponsor–such as a high-level government official–can influence China’s decision to permit a flight into the country. The sponsor has to produce an invitation letter to CAAC authorities, inviting the aircraft and the people on board to enter the country, Pierce said. The letter has to be in a specific format, and it has to be written in Chinese. “That letter is critical for the permit to be approved,” Pierce said. “If it’s from a high-level company or a government official, that can help the arrangements go smoothly.”

The Philippines’ Air Transportation Office does not require a local sponsor, but it requires operators to submit–along with the application–a color photograph of the aircraft showing the tail and aircraft registration number. “Even if a color photograph is readily available, the owner of the aircraft might not want the registration number showing,” Newberry said. “Complications like that come up from time to time. It’s highly unusual, but you have to do it if you want the landing permit.”

Some countries have different applications depending on the category of flight. Japan and Hong Kong require a longer waiting period and more paperwork for Part 135 flights than they do for Part 91 flights. Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism requires Part 91 operators to reserve airport slots before the aircraft’s arrival, but it does not require operators to apply for a formal landing permit. Part 135 operators, on the other hand, must submit extremely complicated paperwork, Newberry said. The government requires aircraft insurance documents, pilot licenses, medical certificates and charter agreements between the end user and the operator, in addition to passenger itineraries. “There’s a big distinction between the two types of operation,” he said.

Once a landing permit has been approved, operators should keep schedule or passenger changes to a minimum, especially when flying into China. “China has rejected and denied some permits because of too many changes,” said Orlando Cantu, a master trip support specialist at Universal Weather & Aviation flight support services. Pierce added that changes should always be submitted when the country’s aviation authority offices are open. “Submitting a schedule change at night or on the weekends will slow the process,” she said.

Operators and trip planners must also consider the infrastructure of each country when planning overseas flights. The airports in China, Japan and India, although popular, have a limited number of parking spaces, according to David deBang, senior international planner for Jet Aviation. Also, some airports don’t have customs or immigration facilities. If not, the trip planner must schedule an intermediate stop at an airport that does have customs or immigration facilities. “Because of strict duty-time limitations for pilots, that could be a challenge,” deBang said. “If the flight is already a long day, that could pose a real problem.”

Trip planners also have to consider how flexible these countries are once the flight is in progress. “If a route or itinerary changes, over-flight permits have to be taken into consideration,” deBang explained. “At the last minute, we might have to break out flight charts and scramble. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, and we have to put it together.”

Local political situations pose challenges for operators and flight planners. Jet Aviation’s deBang explained that if a traveler plans to fly from China to Taiwan, or vice versa, the flight planner will have to schedule an extra stop. “No direct flights are allowed,” deBang said. “If a passenger needs to fly between those two countries, we would need to plan a stop in Hong Kong or some other country.”

Ryan Frankhouser, Arinc Direct international trip support program manager, added that India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation will not accept flights into the country that originate from a Taliban-controlled country. The ministry also bans these flights from using Indian airspace. “The ban includes overflights as well,” Frankhouser said.

Universal’s Cantu added that a passenger should also be aware of the local political situations. “In China, the situation is changing every day because of local civil unrest,” he said. “A passenger should always have a good security company that gives good information about the country he or she is going to.” Universal contracts with FAM International, a global security firm that provides bodyguards and aircraft security, in addition to security reports about various countries.

Although aviation departments and charter operators manage the details of a flight, there are a number of things a passenger can do to mitigate potential problems. Before departing, passengers should always make sure their passports are valid for at least six months and they have the right visas and the right shots, according to deBang. Some countries require yellow fever vaccinations at least 10 days before the trip, for example. “Yellow fever is a big health concern,” he explained. “The yellow fever inoculation has a 10-day inoculation period. If the trip doesn’t have enough lead time, a passenger might have a problem.”

Above all, a passenger should communicate any problems or concerns ahead of time. “Communication is key,” said Jeppesen’s Glogovac. “Let all the involved parties know the plan, and announce changes as soon as possible.”