Crowded Skies: Solving the GCC's air congestion issues

Crowded Skies: Solving the GCC's air congestion issues
Published: 2 June 2014 - 1:04 a.m.
By: Ahmad Lala

Air Traffic Management is the buzz-term at the moment. From the aircraft manufacturers to the individual state civil aviation governing bodies, all recognise the need to put proper measures in place to alleviate congestion and delays. At last month’s Global Aerospace Summit, held in Abu Dhabi, several industry figures offered their thoughts on how to work together to solve the region’s air traffic management issues.

The already congested GCC air space is expected to more than double air traffic movements by 2030. The UAE, for example, which currently manages 2,200 movements per day, is forecast to have 4,600 daily movements by that time. To compound the problem, 49% of the country’s air space is reserved for military use. Whilst the growth rate in the other Gulf countries is not as high, the same broad scenario applies.

Richard Deakin, CEO of UK-based NATS, a global provider of Air Traffic Management (ATM) services, says the Middle East is on a very similar journey to Europe with a very rapid growth in air traffic, and should view the problem holistically.

“One of the key things for unlocking some of the inefficiencies in the air space is to recognise this is a value chain. You can’t just solve one part of it, and hope a miracle will occur and everything will then become super-efficient,” says Deakin.

“One of the challenges found in Europe is that, whilst a lot of the technology exists, pulling that together in a fairly challenging political context is really where the prize lies. So it is not about how efficient you are in your own country, it is about how efficient you are at the borders and how efficient your neighbours are. And that is the key to unlocking some of the challenges that we see today.”

Ahmed Ibrahim Al Jallaf, assistant director general, Air Navigation Services of UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) agrees. His organisation commissioned Airbus ProSky to conduct a study into the Air Traffic situation. The results of the study were presented last year with 53 recommendations to help the country alleviate the problem until 2030. However, as Al Jallaf found, the issue could not be solved by acting independently of the neighbouring states.

“We started looking at the air traffic management efficiency and safety a few years back and we started working together through the establishment of a national airspace committee consisting of all the stakeholders, regulators, service providers, airports, and airlines as well as the military authorities,” says Al Jallaf.

“We achieved a lot, but we later realised that with the issue of air space, we cannot work in isolation, there has to be collaboration within the region.”

In that respect, a joint Middle East ATM enhancement programme was proposed, he reveals. The first meeting was held in February with representatives from most of the region’s states attending, along with global aviation organisations. Al Jallaf was nominated as chairman of the new initiative. 

NATS’s Deakin, whose firm primarily handles ATM at the UK’s airports, has seen his share of such initiatives. His advice to the region: “From a personal point of view, the limitations of these groups is that they are political bodies. They are not created by Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs). ANSPs have been forced into Functional Airspace Blocks that sometimes don’t create harmonious groups.

“The challenge, if I was to offer any perspective for this reason, is to create operational groups, where everyone drives to a common set of customer-focused ambitions. One of the things we have found in Europe to get things working is to pick specific projects, for example city pairs on particular routes, or a specific piece of military airspace that is causing inefficiencies. The challenge is to try and get some momentum going, but to do that on an international basis, rather than have countries focusing on their own,” adds Deakin.

From the perspective of the technology manufacturers, the push is to get region’s airports and ground station to upgrade their capabilities to deal with the advanced on board aircraft systems, which are able to alleviate some congestion issues.

President and CEO of Rockwell Collins, Kelly Ortberg, whose firm provides avionics for a number of aircraft, including the new Boeing 787 and the soon-to-be-delivered Airbus A350 XWB, says the situation can be frustrating. “With our original equipment manufacturers (OEMS) we have been providing the latest capabilities to allow these aircraft to fly more efficiently, and I’m encouraged that maybe we can take advantage, because one of the things the region has, is a very modern fleet. But as an avionics supplier it is sometimes frustrating that aircraft are equipped with capabilities that can’t be utilised,” he says.

“The technology will allow the aircraft to fly closer, with closer spacing, but you have to implement that into the air traffic systems in the ground.”

Pascale Sourisse, senior executive vice-president for international development, Thales, says the technology for ground systems is there as well. Her firm is one of the leaders in this field with products such as the ASBU/ICAO compliant TopSky-ATC solutions. She too believes that cooperation is needed.

“Going beyond technology, cooperation becomes a very important element. As seen in Europe, the notion of cooperation between players is essential, and there are various schemes in terms of cooperation between Air Navigation Service providers, airlines, suppliers,” says Sourisse.

“We believe it is a combination of deploying technologies which are harmonised as much as possible, and ensuring the cooperation between the various players, so we are strong supporters of the ICAO Aviation System Block Upgrade framework.”

ICAO’s aviation system block unit is a programme aimed at transforming air transportation systems through various phases or blocks.

A challenge remains to get the different systems providers to cooperate. The GCAA’s Al Jallaf says: “A responsibility as systems providers is to adopt some sort of cooperation with other systems providers, because one of the difficulties we have at the moment is that we quite often have different systems that cannot operate with each other. So this is something for systems providers to look at ways in which they can make the systems much more interdependent.”

The problem is not unique to the region. Deakin says there is a similar problem in Europe, and calls for better regulatory measures. “Everyone talks about commonality for technological standards, but one of the problems that ANSPs have is, for example, that I could buy some kit from Thales, which will work well in France, but may not work
in the UK,” he says.
“Take Europe for example; we have over 40 different regulatory agencies, and we’re all aiming for one common sky. It’s just not going to happen like that. The need to have a harmonised regulatory approach is key. There are plenty of global bodies out there such as ICAO, that set really good standards. Let’s try and cut back on the number of regulatory agencies because in most cases it comes as a barrier to achieving efficiency.”

Thales’s Sourisse says the UAE and the other Gulf countries have a big role to play in terms of deploying harmonised unified solutions throughout the region. “It is very important that these types of harmonised standardised technologies are deployed in a very strong cooperation spirit,” she says. “This means that companies can agree on very ambitious targets, with the objective of having harmonised and interoperable ATC systems. And also making sure you can improve capacity, limit the environmental footprint, increase safety, and reduce costs overall.”

But how does everyone come on board? By demonstrating savings, says Deakin. “If I look at some of the work we’ve been doing through what that [collaboration] unlocks in the UK now, our arrival management process starts 500 miles away, and that is in collaboration with the French air navigation services, and the Irish and so on,” he says.

“Not only that, we are now looking at using common standards; we have what we call dynamic use of airspace – the Irish have been controlling UK airspace, and we have been controlling some of theirs. That gives us the ability to potentially close centres at night, reduce our operating costs, and generally be more flexible, and allows for additional collaboration on projects such as fuel saving that then unlocks. During the past few years we have saved airlines 70,000 metric tonnes of fuel, just by having more efficient routes.

“The more you can demonstrate savings, the more enthusiastic people become about it, the more the pressure and the expectation is there for your neighbours who aren’t doing that to join the club. The first challenge is taking the first step, and once you’ve done that, expectations increase, but so does the speed of the journey,” he adds.

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