We are all accustomed to the freedom and liberty of being able to hop in our airplanes and fly wherever we want without doing much more than filing a flight plan, lighting the fires and blasting off. However, when your destination requires that you fly through international Flight Information Regions (FIRs), things can get a little more complicated.
Most pilots are aware that prior permission (overflight permit) is sometimes required to fly through international airspace and that fees may be due for flying through that airspace (including the United States). However, finding out how to obtain the overflight permit and how to make the payment can be a challenge and the procedures for doing so varies from airspace to airspace.
In some parts of the world like Central America and the Caribbean, smaller countries may have joined forces to combine their respective airspaces and turned over the responsibility to manage this airspace to a third-party entity. While the third party may administer the airspace above, each country below this airspace may still require operators to obtain a permit to overfly them. This is particularly true with COCESNA airspace in Central America where some jet operators have been forced way off of their planned route because they did not get a permit from a particular country. This can present an unplanned logistical and safety challenge.
Requesting a permit usually entails providing an itinerary, completing forms and submitting aircraft and crew documents to the controlling agency. The controlling agency will analyze the documents submitted and if completed correctly, will provide you with the authorization number for the overflight permit which should be included in box 18 of your ICAO flight plan form.
The methods for calculating airspace fees and for making payment vary widely. Some controlling agencies use Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) to calculate a “flat rate” for using their airspace whereas others use MTOW to calculate a rate applied to the actual distance flown. In rare instances a controlling agency, like SENEAM in Mexico, will use the wingspan of the aircraft to determine the rates to be applied. Some controlling agencies may exempt aircraft below a certain MTOW from airspace fees but not from permits. Usually, flights to or from a country like the United States and Mexico will not pay airspace fees. However, if you flew through that airspace and did not depart or land at an airport in that country (U.S.), airspace fees will be due.
When the airspace is controlled by a third-party agency like COCESNA in Central America or Piarco in the Caribbean, fees will be charged regardless of where you depart or land. Airspace fees may have to be pre-paid prior to flight (Curacao) or become due after the flight has been completed. Fees may be collected in U.S. dollars, Euros (Cuba) or pesos (Mexico). You may be notified of the amount owed by receiving an invoice mailed by the respective controlling agency or not at all, as in the case of Mexico where they have a “self-determination” policy. Mail from some foreign countries may take an extremely long time to reach the recipient, if it arrives at all.
To help inform operators of the requirements for flights in the western hemisphere, we offer a free interactive map that is accessible from the “International Permits” page of our Caribbean Sky Tours (CST) Flight Services website (www.cstflightservices.com). By moving the cursor over the respective country, the map will display requirements for landing/entry/overflight permits, airspace and APIS. This can be a useful tool for planning your international flight. Members of our pilots association can also download many of the forms for requesting overflight and landing permits themselves. Or if pilots prefer, we can take care of obtaining the necessary permits and paying airspace fees on your behalf with our premium international permits or ground handling services.
Failing to obtain the required permits or failing to pay for past flights can result in inconveniences, or worse. We regularly receive calls from pilots who have been denied access to airspace or have had their airplanes grounded in a foreign country because they owed airspace fees from past flights that had been left unpaid by their trip planning company. One of the most challenging airspaces in this regard is Mexico due to the fact that routes from the United States to popular international destinations cross into their airspace. If you have flown from anywhere in the United States across Mexico, or the Gulf of Mexico, to Central America, the Caribbean or South America, you probably flew through Mexican airspace. Unpaid Mexican airspace fees accrue back taxes and interest and follow the tail number of the aircraft. If you purchase an aircraft or change the tail number of your aircraft, you may also be purchasing the unpaid debt of that aircraft or that of the aircraft that bore the tail number you just obtained.
If you have any doubts as to whether you owe unpaid airspace fees, including Mexico, we will be happy to explain how to determine this on your own (yes, for free). If you determine that you do owe Mexican airspace fees, take note that these have to be paid to the Mexican IRS in Mexico and cannot be paid with a credit card, check or wire transfer. The most practical option for making payment is to use a company like ours that has offices in Mexico to avoid having to pay “company A” in the U.S. who pays “company B” in Mexico, and you pay for both. The company you use should always provide the actual payment confirmation made to the Mexican IRS; an invoice from the company doesn’t cut it.
Make sure that your international trip starts on the right foot by determining what permits will be required for your route of flight and make sure that the corresponding airspace fees get paid.