Being located in Ottawa has its advantages and one of them is that Flight 8 was invited by Nav Canada to a briefing on their upcoming new web flight planning system for our October meeting. The briefing was followed by a tour of the computer facilities at the Nav Canada Technical Systems Centre located at the north side of the Ottawa International Airport.
The briefing was conducted by Nav Canada’s Director of Air Traffic Services System Integration, Bill Crawley, with the technical portion presented by Flight Service Specialist Kim Stolpmann.
The new web-based flight planning system is much more than just a face-lift for the old flight planning website. The existing system was rolled out in 2004 and for the first time allowed pilots to file flight plans on-line, augmenting phone and fax methods.
While the current website does work, it hasn’t met expectations in attracting pilots to use it, for several reasons. The existing website suffers from a one way flow of data, the pilot inputs a flight plan and it is gone into the system, without any feedback. It also doesn’t allow flight plans to be amended after filing or to be cancelled. Those functions require a phone call to the Flight Information Centre (FIC) to accomplish.
The existing system is also difficult to sign up for, requiring a printed form to be filled out and mailed away; the process of approval takes several weeks. Likewise a lost password requires a mailed inquiry and takes two to three weeks to get a new one. Furthermore the current flight planning website is not integrated with the Aviation Weather Website, which until October 2010 was hosted by Environment Canada. All of these drawbacks added up to an internet flight planning system that most pilots didn’t use.
The new system has been completely redesigned from scratch for much better customer service and to allow a two-way flow of information. Even the development process has been changed to incorporate a multidisciplinary team of air traffic controllers, flight service specialists, pilots and in-house software developers.
Using development techniques pioneered by the free software movement, the new software has not been constructed as a long process leading to complete finished product for testing, but on daily builds incorporating frequent changes that are tested as the changes are made. This process ensures a faster development pace and a better product.
The new software is all written in the open source Python programming language and for much better speed and reliability runs on Red Hat Linux. On the internet it will support all browsers and operating systems.
The new Internet Flight Planning System (IFPS) will integrate weather and NOTAM information, providing seamless access to everything needed to plan and file a flight. One of the key aims is to allow a two way flow of data, allowing the pilot to not only input a flight plan, but also to change it, cancel it or delay the take-off time, as well.
Due to improved automation the new system will reduce the need for human checking of flight plans, only requiring human checking if certain parameters are met. This should reduce errors and save a lot of Nav Canada manpower. The company hopes that the new bilingual system will also reduce FIC workload and provide quicker and more streamlined access to weather data as well.
One aim is to centralize the old master flight plans, centrestored flight plans and individual pilot website templates so that these can be used anywhere in the country and not just at individual FICs. Flight plans will initially be able to be filed up to 24 hours in advance of the intended flight, but as new ICAO rules come into place this should be able to be lengthened to 120 hours in advance, allowing a whole series of flights over five days to be pre-filed.
Flight Service Specialist Kim Stolpmann gave a demonstration of the current daily build of the website. He showed how much easier it will be to sign-up for the service, using current web protocols to create an account, confirm that your e-mail address is valid and chose your own password. In the event of a forgotten password, the system will e-mail a new password instantly, eliminating the two to three week wait that was the situation in the past.
As on the current website, users will be able to create repeated flight plans as templates and use them over and over again, changing parameters, like fuel on board or number of passengers as required. Stolpmann went on to file a flight plan and showed how quick and easy it will be to change details, like the number of passengers, departure time or even to cancel the flight plan.
Flight plans filed via internet will also be able to be amended by phone call to the FIC. Because the IFPS is an integrated system the reverse is also true - if a flight plan is filed by phone with the FIC it will appear in the pilot’s account and may be amended by use of the website as long as the flight plan was based on a customer- defined template. Even if a FIC makes changes to the flight plan while en route, these will be reflected in the user’s account.
At present the new system will only accept flight plans for Canadian destinations, but eventually it will allow cross-border filings as well.
The briefing given by Stolpmann was received very positively by Flight 8 pilots, many of whom had suggestions to improve the user interface to make the terminology clearer, reduce potential confusion and make the system work better.
Stolpmann made extensive notes for the software developers and indicated those ideas would be included in upcoming IFPS test builds. Flight 8 members will be involved in beta testing the system as well, to provide input from the point of view of private pilots.
The new system is expected to be complete and ready for beta testing in the spring of 2011 and operational for VFR use in the summer of 2011.
Following the complete runthough of the new system, Bill Crawley conducted a tour of the computer facilities where Nav Canada has mock-ups of area and terminal control stations and where the IFPS is being operationally tested. Many of the computer workstations have been converted over from Windows to Linux in preparation for IFPS testing and future operations.
Flight 8 would like to thank Bill Crawley, Kim Stolpmann and the rest of the IFPS teams for staying late on a Wednesday evening to show us their new prototype system. The flight members seemed to agree that Nav Canada is doing this new system right and the improved development process should produce a much more modern and effective system for on-line flight planning.
Obviously the new IFPS will provide manpower savings to the company, but it should also provide much improved service for pilots as well. Flight 8 members are looking forward to participating in the future IFPS beta testing phase, prior to its expected public release next year.