x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Neighbours hold back growth in air traffic

Growth in air traffic to the UAE could be threatened by constraints imposed by neighbouring countries that have not kept pace with advances in air traffic control.

Growth in air traffic to the UAE could be threatened by constraints imposed by neighbouring countries that have not kept pace with advances in air traffic control, the civil aviation body says. Years of investments into improving air traffic flow and safety systems have enabled the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) to handle five times more flights at any given time within the same amount of airspace than its neighbours.

The result is the threat of airlines hitting bottlenecks and delays when they fly in and out of foreign airspace, Saif al Suwaidi, the director general of the GCAA, said yesterday. "We are trying to convince these countries to be more efficient. That will help us and help them to handle more traffic," he said. The upgrading of new systems and processes has allowed the UAE to permit one aircraft to fly as close as 9.2km behind another.

In some neighbouring countries the gap can be as big as 55.5km, GCAA officials said. Home to some of the most aggressively expanding airlines in the world with Emirates and Etihad Airways, which have hundreds of aircraft on order worth tens of billions of dollars, the UAE has the most congested airspace in the region. Its relatively small airspace handles an average of 1,652 take-offs, landings and overflights per day. By comparison, the much larger Flight Information Region (FIR) in Saudi Arabia handles an estimated average of 900 flights per day.

Some UAE neighbours use older air traffic systems that require more distance between aircraft, and may also permit only one entry point into their airspace, Mr al Suwaidi said. He declined to name the countries to which he was referring. The UAE FIR borders Oman, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Due to its space limitations, the Emirates has embarked on a sustained investment programme. The authority yesterday provided a first glimpse of its new Dh300 million (US$81.6m) air traffic control headquarters at the Sheikh Zayed Centre. Operational since June, the centre is designed to be able to handle projected increases in traffic for the next two decades.

The centre reached an innovative agreement with the Armed Forces last year to flexibly use previously restricted military airspace, including a corridor for commercial airliners travelling to Yemen and Africa. This year, the GCAA also began using a system called RNAV 1, which shrinks the size of the airspace corridors airlines are allowed to fly in from 16km wide to 3.2km wide, allowing corridors to be stacked next to each other.

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