Posted on February 27, 2013

The game-changing multi-billion dollar programmes for the expansion and development of airports in the six GCC states has put the complexities of the ‘Crowded Skies’ and challenges of Air Traffic Management (ATM) under the global spotlight. The Middle East airlines are expected to experience the highest growth in passenger traffic at 5.8 per cent per annum through to the year 2025, compared to the world average of 4.6 per cent.

The total aircraft movements to/from and within the Middle East region are estimated to increase to 2,346,000 in 2025 at an average annual growth rate of 7.6 per cent.  While aircraft movements in the UAE witnessed 6.7 per cent growth in 2012, there has been a 16.2 per cent growth in the fleet of UAE-registered airlines/operators in the past 10 years. According to industry experts, over 50 per cent of Middle East’s airline traffic and over 65 per cent of business aviation traffic is concentrated in the GCC region.

The General Civil Aviation Authority’s (GCAA) strategic plan notes that increasing demand for air travel will continue to challenge the efficiencies of the air traffic management system. While the hub-and-spoke system will remain largely the same as today for major airline operations, the demand for more point-to-point service will create new markets and spur increases in low-cost carriers, air taxi operations, and on-demand services.

Additionally, the emergence of VLJ‘s (Very Large Jets)  is expected to create new markets in the general and business aviation sectors for personal, air taxi, and point-to-point passenger operations. Many airports will thus experience significant increases in unscheduled traffic, while many airports that support scheduled air carrier traffic are forecast to grow and experience congestion or delays, if efforts to increase their capacity fall short. As a result, additional airspace flexibility will be necessary to accommodate not only the increasing growth, but also the increasing air traffic complexity.

Nearly 50 per cent of the GCC airspace has some form of restriction, much of it military, denying commercial aircraft the use of the most efficient flight corridors, creating unnecessary added costs for airlines. Aircraft have to follow a pre-determined route regardless of wind conditions, leading to unnecessary fuel consumption, excess carbon emissions, longer flight times, increased noise impact, flight delays and air traffic congestion. More than US$700 million is estimated to be the volume of investments in regional ATM upgrades, while equally significant investments in this segment are in the pipeline.

The UAE airspace is among the most important airspaces in the world due to its strategic location, in essence a link between East and West.  The UAE has a total of 120,000 square kilometers of airspace, with 35 international air corridors. GCAA and Airbus ProSky have recently signed an agreement for the UAE Airspace Enhancement programme, beginning this year.  The UAE Flight Information Region (FIR) witnessed a total of 741,450 aircraft movements in 2012.

Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General of General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), said: “It is due to the rapid expansion of our national operators and the other regional carriers, with the limitations and the small size of the UAE airspace, and in addition to the overburdening regional constrains and restrictions in areas beyond the control of the UAE, we have delays and bottlenecks in the UAE FIR.”

Mohammed Ahli, Director General of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA), said: “In the past, most aviation congestion occurred on the ground. Today the biggest strategic challenge to growth of aviation is in the air. The development of two aerospaces is also under way. One of these will be within the GCC and the other will serve as an international aerospace.”

Daniyal Qureshi, Show Director, The Airport Show, said: “Better management of the airspace is among the serious challenges that the aviation authorities face in their growth aspirations. Airspace reform in the region is overdue and requires a huge commitment from all the governments and stakeholders like ANSPs, airports and airlines. Current ATM systems are not able to keep up with demand and huge investments are needed.”

The latest ATM solutions and systems will be on display at the Airport Show in Dubai from May 6 to 8. The 13th Airport Show will feature exhibitors specialising in ATC Towers, Mobile Control Towers, Communications, Data Processing Systems, Consoles, Enclosures, Landing Systems, Navigational Aids and Fleet Management.

Tony Tyler, CEO and Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said: “The Middle East region must avoid the inefficiencies that we see in Europe. In the Gulf, ATM delays are already nearing crisis levels. It would be a shame if the potential of the investment in ground infrastructure was held back by a lack of progress in the air. If congestion problems are allowed to grow they can quickly turn unmanageable. And the bigger they get, the more difficult the solution.”

According to an Oxford Economics study, the Middle East region has 1029 aircraft in service, operated by 65 airlines from 70 commercial airports. The GCC region has 36 airports, including eight in the UAE. Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways lead the pack and account for the vast majority of the new aircrafts ordered. Over the next five years, they are forecasted to increase capacity at more than 15 per cent per annum, according to a study, Mastering the Challenges of The Middle East Aviation System, by Booz & Co. This means the GCC skies will get even more crowded.

According to GCAA, UAE FIR will have 895,468 flight movements in 2015, over 1.13 million flight movements by 2020 and 1.63 million flight movements by 2030. Capacity improvement of the UAE airspace was highlighted in a stakeholder study carried out by the GCAA, which says that growth in scheduled and general aviation aircraft is expected to increase point-to-point and direct routings.

According to Air Transport Action Group’s recent study, Revolutionising Air Traffic Management, with 13 FIRs to manage, the Middle East ANSPs control more than 1.7 million movements between 15 international airports, as well as 700,000 movements between 45 domestic airports every year. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) recommended that ANSPs modernize their infrastructure by investing in digital communications, surveillance and navigation (CNS) technology.

Salim Al-Aufi, CEO of Oman’s Public Authority for Civil Aviation, said: “One of our main challenges is that our airspace is very congested. Today, we have five airspace sectors. Next year, we are going to open up two additional sectors. There will be a lot of demand for airspace and we are considering many options to help solve the issue.” In Bahrain, the aircraft movements recorded a 12 per cent growth between 2003 and 2012, while it is expected to be around 11 per cent between 2013 and 2022.

Fareed Al Alawi, Head of Air Traffic Operations at Bahrain Civil Aviation Affairs, said: “A major obstacle to producing more en-route capacity is that the Middle East airspace has not yet been optimized. Civil-Military cooperation has become very important in the current aviation environment because of the continuous rapid growth in civil air traffic. Failure to add additional routes structures, particularly within the Bahrain FIR, will result in severe limitation in the ability to increase air traffic capacity.”

The scenario is no different in other states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait given the high growth being recorded in air travel volumes and expansion of airlines. Saudi Arabia is projected to have a combined future capacity of 140 million passengers each year, up from 54.5 million passengers in 2011. In Kuwait, there were 85,567 aircraft movements in 2012.

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