x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Region challenged by surge in air traffic

Experts at a conference in the UAE weigh the consequences of rapidly rising air passenger numbers and consider measures to cope.

DUBAI // The Gulf may need to adopt a regional air traffic control system if a predicted five-fold increase in air passenger numbers by 2015 comes to pass, aviation experts have said. The suggestion was made at a recent Air Traffic Control Optimisation Conference, where participants contemplated how the region might deal with a critical increase in the number of flights resulting from soaring passenger demand.

New carriers, such as flydubai, and new airports, including Al Maktoum International Airport at Jebel Ali, are contributing to the growing capacity problem, the conference heard. In addition to a regional control system, integrating civil and military systems and more flexible use of airspace could help to ease the situation, experts said. Ibrahim al Jabri, the airspace manager at the General Authority of Civil Aviation of Saudi Arabia, said with 72 airlines in the region operating 626 planes and 566 new planes on order, greater co-ordination is required to accommodate present and future demand.

"Our geographical location as an international transport hub is an advantage, but it has brought huge demand that we cannot currently accommodate," he said. And there are complicating factors: because of political instability in the region, there are restricted-flight areas as well as no-fly zones. "The fragmented airspace means that air traffic is not optimised," he said. "There has been a great deal of investment in building and developing airports but not enough in airspace."

In this region, six organisations are attempting to co-ordinate their efforts at air traffic control, which is managed by civil aviation authorities and the military at a national level. As most Gulf states are small, flights cross national borders with greater frequency and responsibility switches from one state to another. In Europe all air traffic is managed by a single organisation, Euro Control, in collaboration with national authorities. This has enabled an increase in flights by offering flexibility of routes.

Achim Baumann, senior consultant of the German air space controller Deutsche Flugsicherung, said that with several large airport developments under way in the region, postponing investment in air traffic control was not an option. "An increase in traffic will see a cycle of bottlenecks begin, which in turn will cause delays to flights," he said. "You can build more planes but you cannot create more airspace so the only option is to become more efficient.

"Future air traffic must be forecasted and the expansion plans of airports and airlines must be transparent so that solutions can be simulated. Solving the problem through trial and error will be very expensive." One of the causes of bottlenecks in the region are the military restricted no-fly zones that force airlines to cluster in increasingly congested air corridors. This problem has been overcome in Europe by combining military and civil aviation systems and personnel into a unified control centre so that passenger flights can be routed through military airspace.

The UAE took the first step towards greater civil and military collaboration with the creation of a flight path last December through a previously restricted military zone in the south-west of the country, opening up new routes to Jeddah and South Africa and easing congestion in other flight paths. Some airlines have called for the introduction of a performance-based navigation system to allow more flexible scheduling and routing of flights.

tbrooks@thenational.ae