With this post, we’ll begin looking at the duties and responsibilities commercial airline crews undertake prior to beginning each flight. As you’ve probably guessed, airline personnel are responsible for numerous tasks before a given flight can actually leave the gate. One of the first steps airline pilots take is to look over the flight’s paperwork. The main document airline crews consider is known as the Flight Release.
The Flight Release, also known as the Dispatch Release or simply, “The Release,” is the master plan or blueprint for the entire flight leg. This document is prepared by the airline’s dispatch department and transmitted to the crew at their departure airport. The release contains vital information on the route, weather, fuel requirements, maintenance/equipment, and any other information pertinent to the flight. The Pilot in Command (the Captain) must determine if, based on the info in the release, the proposed flight can be completed both legally and safely. If everything appears satisfactory, the captain signs both copies of the release and leaves the station copy with gate personnel at the departure airport. The crew retains the other copy for use during the flight.
A major part of the release is the flight plan section. This portion outlines the proposed route of flight, cruise altitude, alternate airport(s) (if necessary/requested), weather reports & forecasts, temporary flight restrictions (if applicable), pertinent Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), and any other relevant data. From this information, the crew is alerted to possible adverse weather, probable air traffic control (ATC) routings, estimated trip duration, and other reasonably foreseeable information. Though helpful for planning, routing and altitude are ALWAYS subject to change, particularly in busy airspace and during bad weather. In such instances, the crew can expect to receive ATC instructions, while they may also request preferred routing/altitudes.
The fuel section is an extremely important part of the release. This section lets the crew know how much fuel they need in order to legally depart. This specified minimum includes fuel for engine start, taxi, takeoff/climb, cruise, descent, landing, and taxi to the gate. If alternate airports are required, the necessary fuel to fly those routes is included. In addition, all flights are required to carry additional fuel (usually at least 45 minutes’ worth) as a cushion for possible delays. At times, flights may choose to depart with more fuel than is legally required. However, such practices aren’t common, as airlines prefer the increased performance & payload capacity afforded by carrying only the necessary fuel.
If the captain notes that the aircraft is underfueled, (s)he must request & receive enough additional fuel to arrive at the legal minimum. In addition, if the pilots determine that (despite having the legally required amount) they would prefer extra fuel, they will coordinate with dispatch and ground operations to acquire the amount deemed necessary. In all instances, the captain has the final authority for the flight’s operation.
Equipment (Inoperative/Restrictions on Use/ MELs)
Due to the vast amount of equipment carried aboard commercial aircraft, it’s extremely common to have certain items inoperative on any given flight. For such instances, the airline has a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved list, called a Minimum Equipment List (MEL), which specifies items that may be inoperative under certain conditions. Any inoperative equipment will be listed on the flight release. The pilots must then refer to the aircraft’s MEL, determine possible effects of the inoperative equipment, establish how long the equipment has been inoperative, note how long the equipment may legally remain inoperative, and verify that any necessary placards/maintenance forms have been properly completed. If any inoperative equipment threatens the safety/legality of the flight, the crew must request maintenance be performed or a new aircraft be provided before beginning the flight. In some instances, the flight will be delayed or canceled while maintenance is performed.
Airline pilots are responsible for overseeing every aspect of the flights they operate. The flight release is the main document that facilitates coordination of all requisite tasks. Through the release, the pilots can assess the demands of the upcoming flight and take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of their passengers.