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What is a Flight Plan?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A flight plan is a document which provides detailed information about a planned flight. The document is filed with aviation officials, and forwarded to officials at the plane's destinations or waypoints to ensure that they have the data in hand. Filing a flight plan is required by law in many cases, and it is also a good idea from a safety perspective, as it ensures that if a flight goes missing, someone will start looking for it.

Several pieces of information are included in a flight plan. The names of the captain, crew, and passengers are included, along with descriptions of any cargo which may be carried. The type of aircraft is also discussed, as is the type of flight, indicating whether the pilot will be flying with instruments, or under visual flight rules. The flight plan also details the departure and arrival points of the aircraft, the estimated route the plane will take, and the expected duration of the flight.

In addition to providing this basic data, a flight plan also usually details alternate airports which it will use in the event of an emergency. It may also specifically address concerns about controlled or restricted airspace, and other issues which may come up during the flight. The idea is to create a complete picture of what is going to occur on the flight, and to demonstrate that the crew have prepared for unexpected events.

From an air traffic control perspective, flight plans are very important, as they alert officials to the presence of planes in the sky. Using filed flight plan data, controllers can time the arrival and departure of planes, and send out specific information about the altitude and heading which various planes should follow to avoid collisions. Without flight plan information, air traffic controllers would find their jobs would be much more complicated than they already are.

Another concern is fuel consumption, because planes burn a lot of fuel, and running out of gas in the middle of the sky is not a desirable occurrence. Using information provided by the manufacturer of the aircraft, the person who files the flight plan can estimate how much fuel will be used, and whether or not it will be necessary to stop and refuel. Fuel allowances must also account for bad weather, which could increase fuel consumption, and in some regions, pilots are mandated to carry extra fuel so that they are prepared in the event of an unexpected event, which could vary from needing to hover over an airport to wait to land to losing fuel due to damage.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Dec 21, 2014

@pastanaga - It's also crucial because there are just so many planes in the air these days. You've got to be able to make sure that they aren't going to crash into each other. That might seem silly because the sky is a massive place, but the planes are often trying to stay on precise routes to take advantage of specific winds and conditions, so it's absolutely conceivable that they might meet in midair.

By pastanaga — On Dec 20, 2014

@Iluviaporos - GPS isn't completely infallible, especially when you're talking about an international flight plan. It's completely dependent on satellites and there's not much reason for them to be in place to track signals over the middle of the ocean. Cell phones can be tracked because they are usually being kept in the middle of areas where there is coverage. Without coverage they can't be tracked, which is why people with cell phones can still be lost in the middle of a hiking trip.

A flight plan is still a crucial part of making any kind of flight. Even if there is radio contact with control towers, equipment can fail or pilots can make errors.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 20, 2014

It kind of boggles my mind that planes can still go missing in this day and age. I mean, it always sounds like the government could track people by their cell phones without difficulty, and there have got to be at least a few cell phones still operating on a big plane.

And if they can track cell phones, why can't they track some kind of GPS signal added to the plane?

It's not like they should be worried about privacy or anything like that, if they are filing a flight plan and sticking to the flight plan then their route is official. Why wouldn't they track the plane as well? It just seems like a basic measure to take, especially when there are still dangers with the weather and with hijacking to consider.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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