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Flight Watch is a term usually applied to the process whereby an aircraft operator, or a contracted service provider acting on its behalf, uses the maintenance of a continuous means of two way contact with an aircraft in flight to enhance the operational efficiency of flights.
Flight Watch is an extension of the process of operations control, which allows this process to be more proactive. Active monitoring by ground based personnel, of all things which may affect the planned completion of an en route flight, allows up-to-the-minute tactical planning. It also allows the Aircraft Commander to inform the operator of changes of intention such as, for example, an intention to land at an alternative destination for technical reasons, so that the operator can make appropriate handling arrangements and seek clearances.
A reliable means of direct two-way communication with each aircraft, allows route change propositions to be communicated to the aircraft commander. These may arise because of actual meteorological conditions ahead varying from those forecast, or expected to vary based on revised forecasts. Other unexpected changes both in the air, such as unexpected ATC delays which could be avoided by re-routing, or on the ground at the destination, can also usually be more comprehensively tracked by a properly equipped ground team than by a flight crew from the aircraft.
The key to fully effective flight watch is two way voice communications directly with an aircraft crew. Except for some short haul operations, this will mean a process based on satellite communications or HF radio. Often, remote parts of the world will rely on patchy HF coverage for ATC communications which severely reduces the value of ATC as an alternative partial information source. The ability to hear from the crew what they intend to or are doing in real time is of course also vital if advice provided by the flight watch team is to be relevant. If voice communications cannot be continuously maintained, then the ACARS system may provide limited interim communications functionality. However, this method is better suited to simple instructions/requests to the aircraft and automated messages, especially in respect of the serviceability of the aircraft.
As a result of the loss of the Air France Airbus A330 in mid Atlantic in 2009, the facilitation of higher volumes of aircraft data than ACARS can handle, to aid accident investigation, is being considered. If this is made practical, then the flight watch function may be able to use a similar method to access real time fuel burn and endurance data.
Flight Watch, in the full-service sense, is often the preserve of larger fleet operators who have enough flight activity to justify the team of shift working specialists required. These operators need not necessarily be airlines, they could equally well be large business jet operators such as those with fractional ownership fleets. For smaller operators, it may be practicable to share a flight watch function with others by employing a sub contractor with a specific brief.
Whilst some flight watch personnel may be specialists in aviation meteorology, most will be generalists recruited from amongst experienced operations control staff who are already used to remotely overseeing aircraft turnround and despatch.