ANALYSIS: Middle East airspace management threatens growth

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The leaders of Emirates, Etihad and Dubai Airports – Tim Clark, James Hogan and Paul Griffiths, respectively – all agree on one thing: that airspace capacity is the biggest single issue now threatening the growth of air transport in the Middle East.

Relentless traffic growth and consequent increasing airspace demand has created the need for airspace structures that governments have so far been unable to deliver. Today the Middle East as a region is more constrained by airspace capacity than most other area areas in the world. Unless properly resolved at a regional level, airspace inefficiency there will strangle and eventually halt further air transport growth. Speaking at a recent event regarding a phased opening of the new Doha airport, is the latest of the region’s airline and airport chiefs to publicly recognise this airspace risk to his airline’s continued growth, calling for a regional solution.

The system, where each nation provides air traffic control services for its own territory, has served the needs of global air transport industry well. But, as the importance of air transport continues to grow, this global system which has provided a reliable and safe service to passengers and airlines is now struggling to cope with the variable demands and the flexibility required by the evolution of modern air transport.

The capacity of any air transport system is dependent on more than the aircraft used to transport passengers and goods; it needs efficient infrastructure on the ground and in the air. The airport terminals, the runways and; the invisible infrastructure - the airspace system that connects each airport to the rest of the world!

Airspace is managed like a system of roads in the air. Some are multi-lane highways in the sky and some a single tracks. When commercial aviation began, each country established its own network of single tracks. Many have since invested in the policies and technologies needed to support multi-lane highways in the sky, but many have not.

Airlines are now flying modern and technically sophisticated aircraft, capable of operating optimum routes and without needing ground-based systems. Yet these aircraft are still routinely using airspace structures that were in some cases defined by the placement of terrestrial navigation aids in the 1950s and 1960s. Other airspace users, including the military and defence organisations, have long operated in the areas not utilised for air transport, making any change today more difficult.

Even so, the investments and policies established by governments extend only to their own national boundaries. A typical international flight will always be restricted by the airspace throughput capacity of the least efficient part of any route (the single-lane track). To illustrate the challenge, consider the immediate impact to flights of airspace capacity reductions arising from air traffic control labour disputes in some European nations. These actions affect aircraft operating from and to points not themselves subject to labour action. Aircraft either wait their turn or fly around the affected area. Similar capacity limits exist elsewhere every day because of inadequate airspace infrastructure. Aircraft operating from and to the Middle East routinely transit more international boundaries and hence more inadequate international airspace operators than the aircraft operating in other regions.

To make gains in airspace capacity, far-reaching co-operation is necessary. It requires a global vision, with wider planning perspectives. It requires implementation of facilities, services and procedures over larger geographical areas. ICAO has provided the necessary framework at the global level, but the definition and delivery of cohesive outcomes at the regional level has proven to be elusive, not just in the Middle East. The difficulties of delivering NextGen in the USA and a more efficient European air traffic management system regularly challenge policy makers and industry stakeholders. But they all seem to recognise that international collaboration is essential and call for closer co-operation between regulators, aircraft operators – both civil and military – and the air navigation service providers. Multilateral action is essential.

In locations where regional airspace capacity solutions have been attempted, such as with the Single European Sky, airspace is nevertheless subject to national regulations. This creates many other challenges, but the airspace system improvements in Europe have without question been substantial.

Elsewhere, the “Inspire” Indian Ocean initiative to reduce emissions is a successful multilateral partnership between air navigation service providers, and airlines (including the Gulf carriers), emulating the precedent set by the “Aspire” programme for the Asia/Pacific region. These initiatives share a common overall objective to make tangible improvements to the environmental performance of aviation through incremental harmonised changes to the ATM system and to increase awareness and utilisation of air traffic management best practices. Inspire involves stakeholders from the Middle East, Africa, India and Australia. Substantial improvements to trans-oceanic efficiency have been achieved.

Similar incremental collaborative initiatives, sanctioned at government level, led by the airspace users, leveraging the lessons learned elsewhere, could transform the airspace landscape of the Middle East. Thereby releasing the capacity needed to sustain the growth of the airlines, airports and economies in the region. But progress so far has been too slow for the airlines.