What Does “File Early” Mean?
Many operators are in the habit of filing flight plans only shortly before their flight’s departure time, which can put them at risk for significant delays. Due to the nature of on-demand operations, this sometimes cannot be avoided. However, many times, when flights are known about well in advance, it can be.
Filing flight plans as early as possible provides the FAA with an accurate picture of expected demand and can help lessen delays that arise as a result of constraints in the NAS.
The goal is to get your flight plans filed, and entered into FAA’s Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS), before any traffic management initiatives (TMIs) are issued. The reasons for this will be discussed below.
If you submit your flight plans through a CDM participating provider (meaning one that has a data sharing Memorandum of Agreement with FAA and a direct connection to TFMS), this will usually be beneficial to you and has some additional aspects discussed below.
Regardless, some general recommendations include:
- Submitting your flight plan the day before the flight, if possible.
- Submitting your flight plan the morning of the flight, if filing the day before is not practical.
- Submitting your flight plan before 0800 eastern time – most TMIs are issued after 0800 eastern.
All of this guidance can be summarized in one rule of thumb – submit your flight plans as soon as the trip is planned, especially when TMIs are likely to impact your flight. How do you know that? Check the NAS.
What Does it NOT Mean?
“File Early” does not mean filing an artificially early departure time. Some pilots file flight plans with a departure time that’s earlier than expected “just in case.” This can lead to misinformation in FAA’s TFMS about demand – and can lead to significant delays for the operator if they aren’t ready to depart when they said they could. For more information on this topic, see File Accurately.
The Flight Plan Process
When an operator submits a flight plan, one of two things happens. The flight plan is either:
- submitted directly into the FAA’s TFMS (the system that controls ground delay programs, airspace flow programs and other TMIs)
- submitted to the FAA’s Host system, which doesn’t enter flight plans into TFMS until a few hours prior to the flight.
Where the flight plan goes when it is submitted depends on the service being used.
Those flight planning services that are CDM participants have a direct connection to TFMS – flight plans filed through them SHOULD go immediately into TFMS as “early intent” messages. This ensures that your flight will be considered “known demand” if any TMIs are issued. Then, usually a few hours before the flight, the actual flight plan is filed, detailing the route and other specifics. But, the initial early intent message is the important part.
Other services submit flight plans only to the FAA Host system, meaning there is no early intent message submitted. In these cases, only the flight plan itself is submitted to to FAA a few hours before the flight.
Operators can contact their flight plan service provider to determine which system is being used to process their flight plans.
You Filed Your Flight Plan Early – Are You Sure?
Working With a Flight Plan Service Provider
Many operators choose to file their flight plans simply through flight service stations. Others choose to utilize a flight plan service provider that helps with their flight planning and with the submission of their flight plans.
As noted above, some of these providers are CDM participants and have direct access to TFMS, meaning flight plans filed through them CAN be sent to TFMS as “early intent” messages shortly after they are received. Most of these providers do this immediately after flight plans are submitted (or at least well in advance of the flight).
However, others choose to hold onto them and only drop them into TFMS only one or two hours in advance of the flight.
This is important because many TMIs go into effect well beyond one or two hours before your planned departure time. So, if you submit your flight plan with a provider that holds onto the flight plan until shortly before your flight, you will be considered a late-filer (and issued additional delays) because of when FAA’s TFMS became aware of your flight.
Operators should confirm with their flight plan service providers, even if they are CDM participants, whether their flight plans are making it into TFMS as early as possible and before TMIs are issued.
The Benefits of Filing Flight Plans Early
When the FAA implements a TMI, it models the initiative based on the available traffic information present in TFMS. When your flight plan is in TFMS during the planning process for the TMI, you are considered “known demand” – the FAA knows you’ll be flying in that particular region or airport and has taken that into account in their planning.
Ensuring that you are known demand reduces the severity of delays you might incur and helps the overall system to run more efficiently.
The Consequences of Filing Flight Plans Late
If your flight plan isn’t in TFMS, any modeled TMIs will be based on incomplete information and will not accurately and efficiently address the constraint that the FAA is trying to solve. The most restrictive TMIs tend to occur when the FAA suddenly has too much traffic for a given area or airport within the NAS, without adequate time to proactively plan for it.
Once your flight plan does show up in TFMS after a TMI has been issued, you will be considered a “late-filer” and will likely receive additional delay as a result. These additional delays can be significant, many times resulting in the maximum delay for the TMI, which can be hundreds of minutes.
The Reality of On-Demand Operations
General aviation offers flexibility that can’t be offered by the scheduled carriers, so itineraries aren’t always known in advance. In these cases, filing a flight plan the day before – or even more than three or four hours before a flight – is simply not an option. Sometimes, the delays associated with this are unavoidable.
Nevertheless, to limit the impact of last-minute travel decisions, operators should always be aware of what is going on in the airspace around them. Check the NAS for any potential delays so that you can examine your options for avoiding them in advance. Doing so will also allow you to set realistic expectations for your passengers.