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Airspace in the Middle East must have the flexibility to deal with the region’s rapid aviation growth.

Aviation in the Middle East supports two million jobs and $116 billion in GDP according to a report compiled by the Air Transport Action Group. 

Over the next 20 years, air traffic in the region will grow at an average 6.3% per annum pushing those figures to 4.4 million jobs and almost $350 billion in GDP generation. During that time, the number of aircraft in operation is set to increase from 1,180 to 3,300.

But these figures assume growth will not be constrained by the airspace issues that are increasingly coming to the fore. Airspace is a finite resource and particularly in the Middle East where the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates up to 60% of it is reserved for military use.

Tony Tyler, IATA director general and CEO, has urged the region not to follow in the footsteps of Europe, which has had its competitiveness diminished by a lack of a single European Sky. 

“Aviation in the Gulf is a great success story and air traffic gridlock should not become its Achilles Heel,” he says. “The players in the region need to buy in urgently to a vision for seamless airspace management in the region and then work together in a team effort to make it happen.”

Single system

That team effort is already happening. ICAO’s Middle East Airspace Enhancement Programme (MAEP) is the key driver, given that all air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in the region are state-run.

Ahmed Al Jallaf, chairman of MAEP’s Steering Committee has called for co-operation between all the stakeholders to harmonise airspace systems and procedures and achieve commonalities locally and regionally.

Many airline CEOs have backed this view. Adel Ali of Air Arabia and Qatar’s Akbar Al Baker have both been reported as calling for some kind of regional air traffic control centre (ACC).

Baker has quipped: “I would like to see something similar to EUROCONTROL being set up in the Gulf – although we certainly do not want to emulate the challenges faced by Europe over the implementation of a single sky.

“But a single management system for the Gulf makes perfect sense,” he continued. “The countries are located close together and our airspace overlaps. This wouldn’t affect sovereignty but would simply allow us to co-operate to improve efficiency and mitigate the pressure we are feeling from fuel prices and environmental concern.”

A single ACC would be a case of back to the future. The Arabian Peninsula used to have a single Flight Information Region (FIR) based in Bahrain. Today, that has been broken into six FIRs.

Operational alignment

Jeff Poole, director general of the Civil Air Navigation Services (CANSO), agrees with the notion. CANSO has described Middle East airspace as “fragmented and saturated” and Poole believes the air transport industry should transcend national boundaries. Airspace should be aligned with the operational requirements of airlines rather than national borders.

“I believe that the lessons from Europe advise us to avoid over-prescriptive top down regulation and we should instead be looking to build from the bottom up by making cross-border changes at the operational level,” he says. 

“We need to be pragmatic and incremental; meaning the plan for the region must be coherent and allow each individual element to fit into the bigger picture.”

CANSO’s Middle East ANSP, Airspace User and Stakeholder Engagement (MEAUSE) aims to achieve just that. It has the strong support of ICAO, IATA and other stakeholders, to raise awareness of the challenges facing the region and the need for much closer collaboration and integration. 

Specifically, MEAUSE is focusing on combining the future equipage plans of airspace users with the investment plans of ANSPs. This will involve studying the present infrastructures of airspace users, ANSPs and other aviation stakeholders.

Congested corridors

The flexibility of the region’s airspace must be improved if air traffic management is to match growth on the ground. There are new airports or planned developments at Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Jordan and Muscat to name but a few.

Dubai is now the world’s busiest international gateway, forecasting some 79 million passengers to pass through its doors in 2015, and yet will have room to spare given a projected 240 million passenger capacity build-out at Al Maktoum International. 

In the air, Dubai’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) forecasts 1.13 million flight movements in 2020, growing to 1.62 million movements a decade later. “As a result the current airspace capacity needs to be further enhanced to meet with the forecasted growth and expansion plans,” says Nils Svan, vice president of strategy at Dubai Air Navigation Services (DANS).

DANS is moving beyond policy level decisions and making real implementation efforts. Dubai is expecting to welcome around 20 million visitors in the line up to Expo 2020 and, as a result, DANS is focusing through its operations on increasing airspace efficiency through investing in cutting edge technology, manpower, safety, research and development that will enable the organisation to meet with the forecasted growth in air traffic capacity.

On an international level, DANS has agreements set up with key organisations including EUROCONTROL, Mitre (the research and development agency), and has joined the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO).

So progress is being made. But each aircraft that is delivered to the Middle East adds to the potential congestion of the region’s airspace. On the ground, there is not an issue but the efficiency of the major hubs could soon unravel if air traffic management does not match their achievements stride for stride.

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