Upgraded air traffic services and less red tape are opening new opportunities for flying in Asia-Pacific airspace. Nicholas Ionides/HONG KONG & SINGAPORE

Regulatory authorities and industry groups have had a busy few years in Asia-Pacific, working to open new air routes and improve operating procedures. This year, the results are showing perhaps more than at any other time. New standards on aircraft separations in the region, coupled with the opening of new routes over the North Pole and improvements to satellite navigation systems, promise to make substantial savings in airline operating costs. They should help reduce flight times, too.

"The changes have made a substantial difference to the airlines," says Tony Laven, infrastructure director for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in the Asia-Pacific region. The combination of schemes from the air traffic service (ATS) providers, is, he argues, starting to show real results.

"There are direct savings for airlines - things like lower fuel burn from shorter, more direct routes - and others such as being able to carry greater payloads. And there will be more benefits when the longer-range aircraft equipment comes around in a few years' time," he adds.

North Pole

One major change to be introduced is the planned formal opening by Russia of four new routes over the North Pole. Work to open the more-direct Polar-1 to -4 routes to scheduled traffic has been carried out for years through the Russian-American Co-ordination Group for Air Traffic, which was formed to settle issues related to air traffic control (ATC) and develop co-operation with civil aviation authorities in other countries. IATA has predicted that Russia can earn up to $75 million annually in airspace navigation charges for cross-polar flights.

In June 1998, Cathay Pacific Airways became the first airline to operate a trial transpolar flight from New York to Hong Kong, using a Boeing 747-400 on a non-stop commercial service normally operated via Vancouver. Other airlines, including American, Northwest and United Airlines, have operated trial flights since, reducing flight times on routes to Asia and allowing for more flexible operations.

United is now effectively operating daily to Hong Kong from Chicago over the Pole, while Northwest is regularly operating Detroit-Beijing/Shanghai services, although they are still considered demonstration flights. Continental Airlines also plans to start operating over the North Pole next year. Pending government approvals, it will operate the first non-stop flights between New York and Hong Kong using extended-range Boeing 777-200ERs.

Cathay expects to start operating regular non-stop flights to its home in Hong Kong from Toronto and New York. That will not be until 2002 or 2003, when new ultra-long-range aircraft types enter service. In May, Cathay operated a commercial trial flight over the Pole from Toronto using an Airbus A340 with a restricted passenger and cargo payload - the first such flight from Canada and the first using an Airbus aircraft.

The opening of polar routes has not been without its problems, in part because Russian authorities have not agreed to allow adequate amounts of traffic on them. Studies have shown a potential traffic base of up to 5,000 flights per year between North America and Asia on the four routes. Moscow has claimed, however, that it cannot accommodate more than 64 flights per week - two per hour, 8h a day, four days a week, because of a lack of English-speaking controllers.

There are institutional problems, too. After much delay, the routes were to have opened formally on 1 July, but this was delayed at the last minute after a reorganisation in Russia led to the sudden disbanding of the aviation administration which had led the talks. Laven says that in the case of the USA there have been delays in finalising bilateral issues with Russia and it is probably still some time before an agreement is secured to allow for scheduled commercial flight. "Like everything else, you take five steps forward and three steps back. But the polar routes are still available for trials and they are being used every day," he says.

China task force

Work to open polar routes has also led to change in China, and the country recently agreed to amend its system under which foreign airlines must apply for rights to operate over it. IATA's assistant director for infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific, David Behrens, says a China Task Force established by the association has won agreement from Beijing to allow carriers to request clearance to operate through a particular entry point on the day of a flight. This compares with a system under which airlines must file flight plans 15 days in advance to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), specifying just one entry point.

Behrens, a former official with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that China's old system did not give operators adequate flexibility as weather conditions on the day of a flight may mean an alternative entry point is more desirable.

Progress is being made to get China to change its system and the hope is that the new procedures can come into effect soon. Changes were expected to have been made in July but Chinese authorities later backed away from pledges to implement them.

"The direct operating cost for a long-range aircraft is around $100 per minute. If you can save 10min that's $1,000 a day. And 365 days a year, that can add up real quick. That's just direct savings - you can also put on extra cargo." Behrens says. "If you want a strong economy, you've got to have a strong aviation infrastructure. And if you have that you have to have the airspace for it."

Another positive development in China has been the opening of a new route between Asia and Europe that cuts around 30min from flights. Late in June, Qantas Airways became the first carrier to fly on the new western route, which it has dubbed The Silk Road Route. Executive general manager for aircraft operations, David Forsyth, says that while many airlines fly over Chinese airspace, the June flight was the first over the Tibetan Plateau using future air navigation system (FANS) equipment.

The Silk Road Route allows Qantas to avoid nightly congestion over the Middle East, "representing a time-saving of about 30min for passengers, together with fuel and other efficiency savings for the airline". Forsyth says the route opening followed six years of research and development.

A Qantas study that began in 1994 found that the optimum routes passed north of the Himalayas and over southern and western China, overflying the Tibetan Plateau. The Plateau has some of the consistently highest terrain in the world, with some mountains as high as 20,000ft (6,100m). Navigating this type of terrain "presented a unique challenge" says Forsyth. "Boeing's development of the Future Air Navigation System (FANS-1) avionics package in 1994 provided the sophisticated navigation system required to traverse this terrain and allowed us to further develop The Silk Road Route."

The FANS-1 package utilises datalink communications, global positioning system (GPS) capabilities and a surveillance system to provide advanced ATC communications. Forsyth says the final stages of the route were developed in conjunction with authorities in China to ensure that their systems were compatible with the FANS-1 package. The CAAC last year contracted ARINC to provide it with new communications, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) equipment to support the opening of the new route.

IATA's Laven says the opening of The Silk Road Route "is the start of CNS/ATM in China", adding that "we are now looking for a route which will also be more widely available". He says future developments should see benefits for Hong Kong and Shanghai traffic operating to Europe.

Those efforts are partly being carried out through a new IATA-backed committee known as the Joint Route Development Group (JRDG), which includes airline members from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It is working to improve present routes between Asia and Europe on which traffic is steadily picking up and on which daily traffic "bottlenecks" are forming.

Behrens says a particular area of focus is the Bay of Bengal, which has become a "choke point". He hopes that changes can be implemented to improve traffic flows over the area. Another committee is working to study the implementation of new FANS routes in Bay of Bengal airspace.

That recently formed committee is referred to as FAT-BOB, or FANS Action Team for the Bay of Bengal. FAT-BOB includes as members IATA, ICAO and member states, and it has already led to progress. Between 1 July and 14 July airlines carried out FANS demonstration flights in the area and a second series of trials was expected after a review meeting set for late August in Pakistan.

Behrens says that eventually it is hoped new FANS routes can eventually be permanently implemented to remove the "choke points" between Europe and Asian cities such as Bangkok, Yangon, Calcutta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Chennai, Colombo and Jakarta.

North Korea

China and the North Pole are not the only places where new routes have opened in recent years. In 1998, routes through North Korean airspace opened, promising to cut 50min from some flights between North America and Asia, and up to 30min from flights between Seoul and the Russian Far East.

Commercial overflights in the Pyongyang flight information region (FIR) formally began in April 1998, and agreement was later reached on the opening of a second route between Japan, South Korea and North Korea. The agreements capped years of efforts by IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to have the Pyongyang FIR opened.

The efforts picked up speed in early 1995 when North Korea signed ICAO's international air services transit agreement. IATA has estimated that its member airlines will be able to save more than $125 million a year in fuel costs as a result of flying shorter distances. North Korea can potentially take in about $5 million a year from overflight charges, which IATA collects on its behalf.

Afghan reconstruction

Soon after North Korea agreed to open the Pyongyang FIR to traffic from all countries, Afghanisatn's Civil Aviation and Tourism Authority signed a contract with IATA covering a refurbishment of the war-torn country's aeronautical facilities. The $8 million contract was signed in June 1998 and the upgrades are being paid for with funds generated from overflight charges.

The contract, which is still being implemented, covers the installation of a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) network to provide a VHF network for communications over the Kabul FIR, and connectivity for voice and aeronautical fixed telecommunication network (AFTN) data communications inside Afghanistan as well as with ATS units in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Laven says that "the main intention of the Afghanistan upgrades is to enhance safety", adding that new direct communications between Afghanistan and Pakistan were to have come on line in July and those with other countries are expected shortly. He says work will also now begin to open CNS/ATM routes over former Soviet states for traffic between Asia and Europe.

RVSM in Asia

Another important change within Asia is that regarding reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) in Pacific oceanic airspace which is enhancing airspace capacity and providing fuel savings for aircraft operators. In February this year RVSM rules were implemented under which vertical separation has been reduced to 1,000ft (300m) from 2,000ft between flight levels 290 and 390 for aircraft approved for such operations.

At the same time, 90km (50nm) lateral separation requiring so-called RNP10 navigation performance standard approval was implemented on the Central East Pacific (Hawaii) Track System between flight levels 290 and 390. The new lateral separation standards were introduced last year on routes in other parts of the Pacific. The RNP10 standard requires aircraft to be able to maintain lateral positional accuracy to within 9.25km for 95% of the time for 10h continuously without GPS augmentation.

IATA estimates RVSM in the Pacific will generate savings of around $12 million for airlines in 2000, and, says Laven, "obviously that will increase in future years". He adds that RVSM is to be implemented in South China Sea airspace next year, covering China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines, "and possibly the Bay of Bengal and possibly Indonesia".

Airservices Australia is meanwhile planning to implement RVSM next year in Australia. Europe plans for a 2002 implementation. The North Atlantic already has RVSM airspace.

South Pacific

Work is continuing on other developments in the Asia-Pacific. Another possible change could cover the establishment of a single FIR for the South Pacific. Last year IATA presented a working paper to the South Pacific Forum on establishing a single FIR after agreement was reached among transport ministers for upper airspace to be "managed co-operatively".

The IATA proposal highlighted a need for investment in new facilities and the advent of satellite technology that allows for ATC services to be provided from a single location. It also calls for the South Pacific Forum - comprising Australia, New Zealand and 14 other South Pacific nations - to develop a request for proposals on the provision of air navigation services. Surplus funds generated from the future "super-FIRs" usage would be distributed to Forum countries for the development of infrastructure in lower airspace.

ATC for the 16 member states is currently split into five FIRs, handled separately by the USA, Fiji, New Zealand, Nauru and the Solomon Islands. The Forum's target is for the establishment of a unified air traffic management system and the phase-out of traditional air navigation and communication systems by 2010.

If all goes well, by then Asian skies should be a much more economic and accessible piece of airspace through which to travel.

Source: Airline Business