Dubai Air Show

Middle East Debates Central ATM Agency

 - November 17, 2013, 5:00 AM
With airspace constraints looming, Middle East nations are looking to regional cooperations to improve capacity and efficiency.

The Middle East needs to prepare to handle increased air traffic congestion over the next few years, especially in the Gulf region; however, forming a central body to coordinate the necessary changes and harmonization is proving difficult.

When a WizzAir flight carrying 100 passengers from Budapest, Hungary, touched down late last month at Dubai’s new airport, it marked the first-ever commercial service at Al Maktoum International and the beginning of a new era for growth. When complete, the airport is expected to cost more than $32 billion and will have five runways capable of handling 160 million passengers annually, two thirds of whom will simply be transiting, en route to their ultimate destinations.

Aviation already comprises more than a quarter of Dubai’s gross domestic product, some $22 billion a year. Much of that comes from Al Maktoum’s older sister, Dubai International Airport, which is the fourth busiest airport in the world serving (in 2012) around 57 million passengers. However, that airport is expected to reach its full capacity of 90 million passengers by 2020, so the new airport is an attempt to retain Dubai’s edge in the market.

Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths, speaking at the inauguration of the new passenger terminal, said that while there are no plans to close Dubai International, the decision would be ultimately determined by airspace capacity. It is clear that this is becoming a critical factor in the region’s aviation ambitions–while the region is forecast to be one of the fastest growing in the world, and investment in airports has met the immediate demands of fast growing airlines, the capacity of its fragmented airspace has not grown at the same rate and is fast becoming a constraint to growth.

MIDRAR Project

In an attempt to address this, the Middle Eastern membership of the Civil Air Navigation Service Organization (CANSO) formed a working group, which–in 2010–established the MIDRAR project to offer some short-, medium- and long-term airspace improvements.

Working closely with ICAO and supported by many of the region’s air navigation service providers, the International Air Transport Association and airspace users, the project used passenger and traffic growth forecasts, data from previous regional studies and national plans, and input directly from stakeholders, to identify the most pressing operational challenges that could realistically be resolved through regional cooperation.

Although its geographical scope deliberately extended beyond the CANSO membership to include the FIRs (flight information regions) of Bahrain, Cairo, Amman, Muscat, Jeddah, Damascus, UAE and Kuwait, the exercise proved that there are no easy solutions to establishing a regional response to those airspace challenges. Each practical initiative that MIDRAR proposed would require the vital commitment of individual states supported by a regional coordinating effort. The fact is that the complexity of the airspace environment in the Middle East reflects the region’s varied geopolitical structure–and therein lies the rub.

Alan Corner of UK air transport consultancy Helios, which worked on the project, said that cost also emerged as an issue, especially within those states that may be asked to fund work that while delivering benefits to the region as a whole would not be of any use to them immediately. “And, set against the context of growing demand, these practical but fairly unambitious solutions might, on their own, not prove enough to satisfy the airspace users,” he added.

Middle East airspace is becoming increasingly recognized as an important resource, especially for airlines transporting passengers and cargo to and between Africa, Europe and the Asia Pacific. The unprecedented capacity crunch threatens to restrict future growth beyond the Middle East, and limit the region’s economic development.

Corner said that while individual states have introduced measures to improve their own efficiency and are progressively doing more bilaterally to address specific issues­–such as between the UAE, Bahrain and Oman–without better cooperation and the development of a regional approach, future airspace capacity is unlikely to meet the growing demand of those airspace users.

John Swift, regional managing director for UK air navigation service provider NATS, which has been operating in the Middle East for the past eight years, said the concept of a regional solution is essential. “Many of the issues being faced by Gulf Cooperation Council states cannot be completely addressed within their own borders. If one state invests heavily in new systems and training to raise the capacity of its airspace, it will not fully achieve the benefits unless enhancements are coordinated with its neighbors.

“The first challenge for such a concept is for all stakeholders to acknowledge that a regional solution is required, and identify the appropriate body to coordinate activities, integrating the master plans of individual states and identifying efficiencies and quick wins,” said Swift, who added, “The biggest challenge to this concept is that there is not enough open debate about the possibilities, or recognition of the economic benefits that would flow to all the states involved in such an initiative.”

While global aviation’s sovereign body, ICAO, engages with all Middle Eastern states and coordinates at policy level, an alternative forum to coordinate and support the actual implementation of regional airspace improvements emerged three years ago in the form of MEAUSE (Middle East Air Navigation Service Provider, Airspace User and Stakeholder Engagement), which CANSO hopes will become the focal point for developing solutions.

Launched as a CANSO working group, MEAUSE has evolved to become a mechanism to facilitate addressing the acute imbalance between traffic growth and airspace capacity. Its first tentative steps were taken to create an understanding–at the most basic level–about the need for cooperation if the region is to survive explosive traffic growth and maintain the economic benefits that aviation has brought. Much of the early focus has been on the fundamentals of “customer relationships,” signaling the realities of historically disjointed relationships between the various stakeholders.

Even so, ICAO, which maintains an office in the region, has a potentially stronger role to play supporting developments in the region–recognized by the fact that ICAO has been commissioned to establish a Middle East airspace enhancement program that will consider the findings of the MIDRAR project along with other options, but under ICAO’s Middle East regional structure.

ICAO is a good vehicle because everyone recognizes it–they are all contracted states. At the same time, CANSO is successful at providing a non-state-level platform where different stakeholders can engage,” said Corner.

The issue over whether national initiatives can really be implemented in parallel with the broader region’s needs was highlighted perhaps most recently by the completion of the UAE’s airspace and air traffic management system study, which was conducted jointly with Airbus ProSky in its quest to create “a sustainable aviation system.”

“General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) is committed to making the difficult choices and putting forth effort to realize our ATM Strategic Plan for 2030,” said Ahmed Al Jallaf, GCAA executive director of air navigation services. “This study has produced extremely important research allowing us to be the Middle East ATM leader and set examples for other regions,” he added.

While the study is crucial to ensure that the UAE’s airspace structure and the ATM system will be able to handle traffic growth, beyond the remedies the report’s 53 recommendations, the question remains: How will the UAE’s work be integrated with regional needs?

Rivalries will undoubtedly persist but at least the Middle East can draw on the growing number of examples from around the world where cooperation has delivered tangible improvements to airspace efficiency and capacity.

As CANSO’s Salem Al–Jahdli pointed out: “In much the same way that fragmentation forced the European region to adopt its ambitious Single European Sky initiative, the Middle East is recognizing that its own fragmentation is creating safety, efficiency and capacity challenges for the region that can be effectively tackled only through cooperation and planning.”

Corner agrees. “The Middle East is different, but there is nothing to suggest that much of what is being done in other regions could not also be implemented in the Middle East. Regulators, ANSPs and airspace users now routinely engage in various regional forums, including MEAUSE, and there are a number of local initiatives, such as the A-CDM trial in Jeddah and the Emirates FLOW project in Dubai, that have the potential to be expanded further.”