An increasingly congested airspace over the Middle East could cost the region US$16 billion over the next 10 years if the issue remains unresolved, according to a senior official at Nats, the air traffic management company.
These will primarily be in terms of significant traffic delays and fuel costs, said John Swift, the Middle East director.
The British company provides air traffic control services over UK airspace, handling more than 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers a year. It also works in more than 30 countries.
A crowded airspace above the UAE and the wider GCC has been described by the International Air Transport Association (Iata) as one of the most serious problems threatening the growth of the aviation in the region.
“If you invest 1 per cent of this $16bn, you would see a significant return on investment,” said Mr Swift. This investment should be on infrastructure and air traffic management or communication systems between different countries.
“While some solutions need to be applied at some airports and some individual countries, the real multiplier is if people start to work together,” he said.
For example, the UK, which faced a similar problem in the 1990s, has introduced a system that streamlines traffic arriving at Heathrow. This traffic can be managed between 80 and 100 miles away, but at times this can be late, so air traffic controllers in the UK started communicating with other airports – in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France – to ask those countries to slow down their aircraft speed when they are 350 miles away, over their respective airspace.
“This has reduced the holding time by one minute per aircraft, while it doesn’t sound a lot, but it has resulted in $2.5 million of fuel savings for the airlines and [reduced] carbon dioxide emissions,” said Mr Swift.
There is only a limited amount that the UAE air traffic controllers can do if the traffic is coming from Oman and Bahrain. “It will seem crazy to try and manage an aircraft in the last 20 minutes,” said Mr Swift. “But if we fast-forward to see how busy it will be in Dubai in the next 17 hours for a plane coming from Auckland, then we can say to this aircraft reduce your speed by a very small amount.”
Some initiatives are already under way, such as the Middle East Air Traffic Management Programme, made up of aviation authorities and regulators from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“It is a fantastic idea and to be applauded, but I don’t think it is getting the support that it needs,” said Mr Swift. “More effort needs to be done to bring more states into it, get financial support, more resources and more skilled people.”
Airspace segregation between military and civilian usage also adds to the congestion. More coordination is needed for the airspace usage, said Mr Swift.
“What we really need is a dynamic usage of airspace, so airspace is not for one organisation or the other but for the use of everyone,” he said.
In 2012 and 2013, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority had tasked Airbus Prosky, the air traffic management subsidiary of the European plane maker Airbus, to study the challenges for air traffic through to 2030. Airbus Prosky came up with 53 recommendations to help prepare the country for the future and alleviate airspace saturation.
One of the solutions was to develop a single regional air traffic management for the Arabia Gulf, similar to Europe’s Eurocontrol.
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