x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Opening up crowded skies

Most of the airspace above the country is a no-go area, with large areas off-limits up to 40,000ft.

Niklas Lumdquist, an air traffic controller at GCAA in Abu Dhabi, must shepherd increasing numbers of aircraft through tight airspace.
Niklas Lumdquist, an air traffic controller at GCAA in Abu Dhabi, must shepherd increasing numbers of aircraft through tight airspace.

It may come as a surprise to observers of the UAE's bustling aviation industry that most of the airspace above the country is a no-go area. Just over half of the airspace over the deserts and coastal waters of the UAE, which measures 120,000 square kilometres, is an aerial exclusion zone. Restricted cylindrical airspaces rise up 12,000 feet in the sky like invisible tubes, keeping aircraft away from radar balloons, military bases and sites for weapons testing. Other places in the desert are so sensitive the airspace is off-limits even at 40,000 ft.

Pilots flying over the UAE are able to navigate this aerial maze through the assistance of air traffic controllers, but their jobs are only going to become tougher. The Emirates is angling to become a world hub for transcontinental travel between Asia and Europe. Following heavy aircraft orders, the fleet of commercial aircraft owned by Etihad, Emirates and Air Arabia is set to triple by 2025. The resulting traffic - expected to reach 1.4 million flights a year in 2020 - has prompted concerns that the airspace, as it is currently designed and managed, is inadequate, and the increasing numbers of aeroplanes are being drawn into tight, unsafe funnels.

"We are running out of space," said Hassan Karam, the acting director of air navigation at the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). "The UAE airspace is so congested." Dubai airport officials have called for a GCC-wide unified air traffic-control system similar to EuroControl in Europe, but so far there appears to be little progress. Mr Karam, originally from Sharjah, joined the authority as an air traffic controller before working his way up. He presides over a command centre that provides safe passage for 500,000 flights annually. About 80 per cent are flights arriving in and departing out of the country, while the remainder are aircraft passing by. Despite such daunting figures, Mr Karam says his agency has a plan. And not surprisingly, the military is a big part of it.

Civil aviation authorities were joining hands with military strategists to create flexible use of restricted airspace, Mr Karam said during a recent visit to the authority's control centre in Abu Dhabi. A newly approved air corridor, cutting a route through UAE airspace for commercial airliners en route to Yemen, Africa and the Americas, is the first fruit of this new partnership. Route A419, which steers planes through a military area over the Abu Dhabi desert, has been granted by the Armed Forces and will come into effect next month. The short cut saves time and fuel by erasing up to 75 miles (120km) of detours under the previous zoning. Under the allowance, the air corridor is available at any time, unless the military notifies the civil aviators two days in advance.

"This is the first example in the region of flexible use of airspace," Mr Karam said, not without a little satisfaction. The concession instantly won admirers, with letters of thanks arriving from the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization and Emirates Airline. This new spirit of co-operation with civil aviation administrators, generally uncommon among military commands, is thought to be a product of the authority's new director general. When the GCAA's top spot opened up last year due to a retirement, officials, sensing the need to cement new links with the military, tapped an Air Force administrator for the job. The new appointee, Saif Mohammed al Suwaidi, was a helicopter pilot for the Armed Forces and flew support missions in Kuwait in the First Gulf War. He is now seen as using his military contacts to bridge the divide and will negotiate new corridors in the future using A419 as the model.

Another remedy to the growing congestion is to harness new technology on aircraft to relieve aerial bottlenecks. The GCAA would like to increase the number of pathways out of the country's airspace. Today, there are a limited number of designated exit points to the east, west and north entering the airspace of the UAE's neighbours. One exit point takes aircraft west towards Qatar and Europe, another heading takes aeroplanes over Iranian waters, while in the east the GCAA hands flights to Asia over to Omani authorities.

The GCAA hopes to increase the number of pathways by replacing older airways that give aircraft five-mile-wide berths with several parallel corridors. Instead of five miles, each plane would keep to a deviation of just one mile wide, Mr Karam said. The new requirement is being made possible through the latest on-board instruments, which track and navigate aircraft more accurately. Standing in his offices beside a map of the UAE, Mr Karam pointed to a spot where aircraft fly north-west to Europe. "Instead of having one airway here, we are going to have three here," he said.

The UAE was not always so ambitious. The GCAA was formed about 12 years ago after Emirates Airline had already been operating for a decade. Before then, many flights over the country were delegated to Bahrain flight control, which oversaw great swathes of the region's airspace because its neighbours were either uninterested or ill-equipped for the task. To this day, Bahrain controls airspace beyond its sovereign boundaries, including parts of the Saudi Arabian desert. As recently as 1998, tens of thousands of flights over the UAE were guided by Bahraini flight controllers.

Back then, the entire UAE airspace was considered one sector and controlled by one traffic controller. But today, because of the dramatic growth, there are now five sectors administered by a rotating staff of 60 controllers. A sixth sector, which splits the airspace of Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah into two sections, comes into effect next month, and the GCAA says it needs to hire 10 more controllers to help manage the new requirements.

Now, the UAE has what is arguably the most sophisticated civil aviation department in the Middle East. A few kilometres from Abu Dhabi airport, a new flight control centre is being built adjacent to four new radar towers rising 60 metres. The new command centre and its backup building a few metres away are part of a programme to upgrade the GCAA facilities and prepare for future demands. Officials plan to move into the new centre by the middle of next year.

Back at the existing command centre, located in a nondescript building in the middle of Abu Dhabi island, Mr Karam opened the doors on the third floor, revealing a dimly-lit control room. Fed by computers on the floor below, which sift through 4,000 messages a day regarding flight plans, traffic controllers sat watching a myriad of glowing dots moving about on a bank of screens and giving instructions to pilots. The dots represented the more than 1,400 flights a day that navigate the country's airspace. To keep pace with the growth, the GCAA is using new air navigation technology. It recently signed deals with contractors Raytheon and Comsoft to add several layers of protection and avoid what civil aviators call "the Swiss cheese effect" - when a number of safety precautions fail simultaneously and accidents occur. No system is completely risk-free. "As soon as you bring humans into the picture, errors come into the picture," said Morne Bligaut, an air traffic control manager at GCAA. But improvement measures at the UAE air traffic command has reduced the amount of paperwork processed manually by 85 per cent, due in part to a new online data interchange system, the first in the Middle East.

"We're drawing the safety net tighter and tighter," Mr Bligaut said. igale@thenational.ae