Dubai Air Show

Gulf states lead pace-setting Mideast growth

 - December 7, 2006, 6:06 AM

Last year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported a record 24.8-percent increase in traffic in the Middle East and a 50-percent growth in revenue passenger miles (rpm) since 2000. The trend is continuing this year; IATA’s year-to-date figures through the end of August revealed an rpm increase of 13.8 percent over the same period in 2004–again, higher than anywhere else (with the worldwide average rise being 8.3 percent).

Most of that growth is driven by the phenomenal acceleration of the economies and tourism of the United Arab Emirates and its neighboring Gulf states–and the region’s airlines are preparing for more. With 45 giant Airbus A380s on order, Emirates is to take delivery of a widebody aircraft every month for the next seven years, while Etihad, Gulf Air and others also add aircraft to their fleets at an unprecedented rate.

All this means that air traffic authorites the airspace above and adjacent to the UAE if they expect to accommodate all the extra traffic without significant delays. Also, existing and planned airports need to have available capacity.

The UAE is aware of the developing situation and has taken steps to ensure it can deal with the coming boom. However, while it hosts the fastest growing air transport sector in the region, it lies in a relatively challenging geographical location at the southeastern extremity of the Gulf. This means that, from an air traffic management (ATM) point of view, traffic flying to Europe has three principal choices of route: Saudi Arabia, Iran and, more recently, Iraq.

Moves to increase airspace capacity have already begun. This month marks the second anniversary of the introduction of reduced vertical separation minimums in all Middle Eastern countries except Afghanistan and Iraq, which has resulted in a 25-percent increase in capacity. Reduced vertical separation minimum airspace also took effort in India, Pakistan and Myanmar, which means that traffic can fly in uninterrupted RVSM airspace all the way from Singapore to the U.S.–a significant achievement. Eurocontrol, IATA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) all made major contributions to introducing RVSM, an effort led by the UAE, which carried out the safety oversight vital to its introduction.

RVSM safety monitoring must continue, however, and after the UAE discontinued its safety oversight for the region in June 2004, a major initiative has begun to establish a Middle East regional monitoring agency, which would take over the RVSM safety assurance role. Several issues remain to be resolved, however, including the incorporation of war-torn Iraq into RVSM airspace, which would eliminate a non-RVSM area between the Gulf and Europe.

IATA’s senior vice president for safety, operations and infrastructure, Gunther Matschnigg, said that, overall, the Gulf states are working well toward introducing the new ATM technologies. “We’re seeing the gradual introduction of ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast] in the region and CPDLC [controller pilot datalink communications] trials are under way in Egypt and Iran,” he said. Matschnigg added that bottlenecks remain a problem, “but we have identified where they are with ICAO [international civil aviation organization] and the states.”

Forecasting traffic growth is difficult, but there is general agreement that the Middle East will see an annual compound growth of 6.8 percent in aircraft movements until at least 2015. For the UAE alone growth rises to 9 percent, a figure that has been formally adopted by the board of directors of its civil aviation authority and is included in its strategic planning.

According to the director of UAE air navigation services, Riis Johansen, this is “the minimum growth we will have to accommodate, and we fully expect to be able to handle it without difficulty.” He pointed to the opening of a fourth 24-hour sector in April and the operation of a fifth to handle peak traffic between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

The UAE has been instrumental in proposing and opening two airways above Flight Level 280 (28,000 feet) over Iraq to accommodate the increase of traffic to Europe. “We’re working on opening a third,” said Johansen, “but it all takes time. Iraq was without a full ATM system for 23 years and during that time the ATM world moved on considerably.”

Another airspace capacity problem faced by the ATM community is the need for military airspace to be available to civil users during peak travel times. “It is a significant issue,” said Johansen, “but we’re finding that the military are steadily becoming more flexible with their airspace.” He pointed to Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter having in 2002 restructured its airspace, cutting 40 miles from the Dubai-London route.

Having sufficient airspace capacity is no use without the ground infrastructure to support it and, with $30 billion worth of airport development planned over the next 20 years, the need has clearly been understood. In the UAE alone, $18 billion is being targeted at expanding the existing Dubai International Airport, building the all-new Jebel Ali International Airport and expanding Abu Dhabi Airport. “We’ll eventually have to modify our airspace structure to accommodate this,” said Johansen.

Other airport projects include Sudan, which is planning a new $530 million facility capable of handling eight million passengers a year; Egypt, which is planning five new secondary airports; Saudi Arabia, planning new airports at Madinah, Tabouk, Khafaji and Kanfaza; and Jordan, which is building a new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport.

This year’s Dubai Air Show is a platform for companies to show off some of the technological solutions to prepare for the coming explosion of traffic in the Middle East region. But high-tech equipment is not the only answer, which is why organizations such as Eurocontrol and the FAA are helping provide solutions for achieving capacity increases.

They include ideas such as collaborative decision making, and moving toward an incident-reporting culture–an area where Eurocontrol is still struggling to encourage some of its own European members to comply with new regulations. Safety, as always, is paramount, and the increasingly crowded skies over the Middle East will set new challenges as the ATM community adapts to change. As with Europe, the hope is that it will eventually be possible to have a harmonized ATM system that will see the Middle East network becoming a part of a “seamless” system that encompasses the entire planet.