Air traffic management stakeholders in the Middle East are planning to restructure the region's fragmented airspace to avoid capacity constraints that threaten air traffic growth.

The Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) reveals that a joint Middle East airspace study is to develop a co-ordinated approach to optimise the structure of the region's strained airspace and examine how it could be used more efficiently.

Air traffic growth in the Middle East has outpaced the "institutional ability" of infrastructure providers to increase their capacity at the same rate, says CANSO director general Graham Lake.

The review aims to turn this around so that airspace capacity increases faster than the demand for it. However, stakeholders will have to move "very quickly", according to Lake, before the constraints affect the region's development.

Emirates president Tim Clark last year blamed regional ATM issues - aside from slow airport expansion around the globe - as a primary stumbling block to faster growth. "If it hadn't been for those inhibitors we would have made much larger orders for expansion over the next 10 years," he said.

While each air navigation provider in the Middle East has a clear idea about capacity demand and supply within its own national confines and those of neighbouring countries, there is no such concept for the entire region. The objective of the joint study is to provide a "truly regional snapshot where each state, airport, airline is in terms of current activity and growth plans", explains Lake, "so we can identify where the pinch points are and address them collectively on a regional basis and develop quick solutions."

This strategy has been endorsed by stakeholders in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.

While acknowledging political challenges around countries such as Iran and Syria, Lake points out that these states are interacting with the international aviation community on an operational basis every day. He is optimistic about progress given the "level of professionalism, passion for progress and open-mindedness shown on all sides across the region".

Harmonising aircraft separation standards is a main objective. Saudi Arabia, for example, is surrounded by eight flight information regions with different separation minima. As aircraft cruise at constant speeds - and those heading in a similar direction tend to fly at the same altitude for fuel efficiency - the separation variations lead to issues in Saudi Arabia's traffic flows, especially during periods of high volume.

Other improvements could include re-alignment of airspace in certain locations and optimising the divisions between civil and military airspace, as well as simplifying equipment procurement, says Lake.

The joint Middle East airspace study is meant as a "living document", which is to be continuously updated to form the basis for further regional improvements in the region. Initial results will be presented at CANSO's next Middle East conference in Cairo in January 2012.

Source: Flight International