Here at Maypole Airfield we love foreign visitors popping in from Europe for a meal in the pub or on their way to some other attraction in UK. We are the nearest GA-only airfield to France, which is able to handle flights to and from the EU. And now Manston has closed, we are seeing an increase in foreign pilots wanting to land here.
Some while ago we used to have an airfield AFPEx account which allowed us to monitor all the international flights booked to and from our airfield and which we could use to assist foreign pilots submit flight plans for their return journeys (or resolve problems for them). Then, “the powers that be” decided to introduce charges for our AFPEx account (around £500 per year). We are a very small operation and we could not afford this expense. So we had to relinquish our account. Our personal accounts are free, but we cannot see any other’s flight plans. This has led to several problems.
Firstly, although we give PPR for aircraft flying in from the continent, we now cannot be sure of their arrival times as we no longer get sent any departure or cancellation information. Apart from the inconvenience which occurs from sometimes not having people on site when our visitors arrive, Border Force arrives on site unexpectedly and often some hours before the aircraft they want to see arrives. It is only a matter of time before Border Force will arrive to a locked airfield and not be able to conduct their duties, because we were not aware of the actual time of departure (and therefore arrival) of our flights. If we are aware of departure information, we can routinely ensure the site is open and prepared for any Border Force visit. Moreover, if we don’t know departure times, we have no ability to act if a visiting aircraft may be overdue.
Most recently, we had a French pilot trying to file a flight plan to get back to France. He could not get access to his normal on-line flight planning system and asked us for help. I called NATS and was told I could not file a flight plan for the visitor over the telephone. A photo (from my phone) of the flight plan was forbidden. I did not have a working fax on site and so I was informed by the NATS Duty Operations Manager to get the pilot to file the flight plan when he was in flight, with London Information. Despite my protestations, this was the only solution available!
The French pilot took off and tried to file a flight plan with London Information whilst in the air, as NATS advised. However, he was hampered by poor signal quality, not the best of English skills and too many others on the frequency cutting in. As a result he failed to get the message across and so he returned to Maypole having got most of the way to Le Touquet, his destination.
We then tried helping him with the flight plan again! I shouted at NATS once more and we tried logging a flight plan for him on Sky Demon, which one of our pilots arrived with – we could not get it to work for him! Then we rang LFAT (his destination) and they passed us on to a Bordeaux number (BNIA). When we got through, they immediately took his flight plan over the phone and it was lodged in about 90 seconds from first contact.
I can understand in this time of austerity that NATS doesn’t want to pay for someone to be available on the phone to routinely take flight plans. However, surely they should have in place a process to deal with unusual and extraordinary circumstances when they crop up? By all means have some checks and balances to make sure the process is not misused. Nevertheless, any one of the NATS team (and I spoke to several) could have spent the 90 seconds to deal with this problem instead of involving about 10 people on many phone calls, an aborted flight and then having to fall back on a foreign air traffic organisation. On a personal level, I am ashamed that between CAA and NATS we cannot offer our foreign visitors a better reception.
Once again, I have written to NATS to ask that they examine the case for the provision of an AFPEx account for very small airfields free of charge and re-establish our old AFPEx account on this basis. The usage would be very light. However, it will also help NATS, Border Force, visiting pilots and small airfield operators at practically no incremental costs to them. I am sure that this is one of the unintended consequences of the new system. AFPEx Lite was brought in to help smaller airfields, but it still has a charge and it does not work for the smallest international airfields with only an handful of international flights per year.