FlightAware introduces free online flight planner

 - August 31, 2009, 6:08 AM

The flight planner available on Flight-Aware’s Web site is still in pre-release beta form, and FlightAware is asking users to submit feedback. Nevertheless, the planner offers a lot of features and capability for the price, which is free.

Users start by planning a flight on the flight plan form, inputting departure, destination and alternate airports. FlightAware provides a list of all airports that have IFR approaches and are within 40 nm of the destination to help in selecting an alternate.

An unlimited number of pilot and aircraft profiles are available to FlightAware flight planner users. Users can opt for a generic “shared” aircraft listed in FlightAware’s system or their own N-number-specific aircraft with information that they can add to that aircraft’s profile. Users can’t file a flight plan using a shared aircraft because these aren’t associated with a specific N-number.

Adding a new aircraft is confusing, and is a process FlightAware programmers need to fix. To add a new aircraft to the list, the user first enters all the information for that particular aircraft–N-number, empty weight, gross weight, fuel capacity and so on. Even though the user provides the aircraft type in this step, FlightAware doesn’t offer to add the performance profile for that aircraft from its already existing performance database; the operator has to take a few extra unexplained steps to do this.

To add the performance info to new aircraft in the “aircraft hangar,” one must find the new aircraft on the list, then click on the “performance profiles” button next to that new aircraft. At this point, the user can either add in his own performance data or choose FlightAware’s data, which covers more popular piston, turboprop and jet aircraft. This is where the process is confusing.

The user’s aircraft are listed under a “Your Performance Profiles” heading. Performance information is listed under a different heading, “Shared Performance Profiles for [XX type].”

To add FlightAware’s data to the aircraft in the profile, the user has to click on the “copy” button next to each performance category in the “Shared Performance Profiles” to copy the performance information in FlightAware’s system into the aircraft’s profile. This is not intuitive, and there is no context-sensitive help to guide the user.

The performance categories include climb, three cruise settings (max thrust, long range, max range) and normal descent. If an airplane isn’t on the list, the user can send copies of pertinent AFM pages to FlightAware and it will enter the performance data.

After the user enters the basic flight plan parameters, the system will offer a list of routings at various altitudes in a matrix. Each option is color-coded to show if it is the fastest, most fuel efficient or the lowest cost. Clicking on an option allows the user to proceed to the “Plan Flight/View Navigation Log” button.

Here FlightAware shines, with lots of information presented on the navigation log page. This includes the flight plan parameters, an overview of information for departure and destination airports, FBO details, Metars and TAFs, and links to downloadable IFR procedures for each airport. FlightAware maintains a list of all flight plans that the account user has filed in the past 24 hours.

While FlightAware’s Pilot Resources section offers Qualified Internet Communication Provider-compliant weather information, including Metars, TAFs and weather maps and charts, the user has to leave the flight planner to access the weather charts. It would be handy to have a link from within the nav log to look at weather charts.

Unlike other free flight planning systems such as FltPlan.com or AOPA’s product, the FlightAware flight planner does not offer a graphical view of the planned flight, and it lacks many of the services–such as eAPIS–that FltPlan.com offers. FlightAware is planning to add graphical overlays of weather on a view of the planned flight in the near future, according to a company spokesman.

In summary, FlightAware’s flight planner is a good basic planning system that has plenty of potential; and it stands apart with its unique color-coded “fastest, least fuel, lowest cost” options matrix.