Sky's the limit: tackling aviation congestion in the Gulf

While Gulf states are spending billions of dollars on new aircraft and airport upgrades, the most significant issue threatening the region’s aviation industry is its congested airspace, with rising Iranian fees and Oman's outdated infrastructure the key points for concern, experts say
Sky's the limit: tackling aviation congestion in the Gulf
By Shane McGinley
Sat 28 Nov 2015 03:50 AM

The absence at this year’s Dubai Airshow of multi-billion dollar aircraft deals was explained by most as the result of low oil prices and maturing order books.

But Emirates Airline president Sir Tim Clark had a more accurate explanation: congested airspace. Clark revealed that Dubai’s rapidly growing airline would have ordered 100 more Airbus superjumbos if there was room for them — not at Dubai International Airport, but in the sky.

“The capacity constraint curve has hit us a little bit sooner [than expected],” Clark said, of the region’s over-crowded airspace.

Earlier this year, Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansoori, UAE Minister of Economy and chairman of the country’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), also outlined the challenges associated with the country’s incredible aviation growth story.

In 1986, there were just 342 daily aircraft movements. The number has surged to an average of 2,250 in 2014 — more than six times the rate in less than 30 years.

By 2030, the GCAA anticipates at least 5,100 daily aircraft movements, making the UAE one of the busiest airspaces in the world. At the same time, the number of aircraft registered in the UAE is expected to rise from 762 in 2014 to 1,366 by 2030, the minister said.

Congestion has been exacerbated by the closure of entire areas of international airspace previously open to Gulf carriers. Conflict has forced airlines to divert their flights from routes that travelled over Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and parts of Egypt. The war in Yemen has in some cases added 1 ½ hours to flying time, Clark said. It may also increased fuel costs and squeezed ticket margins.

John Swift, Middle East director of air traffic management consultancy firm NATS, says aviation regulators are not acting fast enough.

“It’s a problem that isn’t being quickly grasped. They know it’s coming but it is one of those things that is perceived as being a long way away,” Swift says. “It is only when you start to get delays that people will really start to address it, rather than waiting until the issue actually hits. I detect a lot of frustration in the airline community.”

NATS recently hired consultancy firm Oxford Economics to determine the extent of the impact on flight schedules. Using data from industry website Flightstats, average delays were calculated for the busiest airports in the six Gulf countries during a seven-day period in June 2015. It discovered that the average flight delay for the region was approximately 36 minutes. While data on the causes of flight delays in the Middle East is not available, airport data from Europe found that 82 percent of delays were usually attributable to air traffic control or capacity issues.

Therefore, the Oxford Economics report deduced that an average of 29 minutes per flight could be attributed directly to airspace congestion issues. It claimed — based on University of Westminster 2011 research — the cost to airlines of delays was about $40 per minute. It also forecast that, if nothing was done to address the issue, average delays would double to nearly an hour by 2025.

Taking all these projections into account, the study estimates $16.3bn in economic benefit can be achieved in the Middle East over the next ten years if the region implements improvements to its air traffic control systems.

“Where it will have a particular effect is on hub airports, such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar,” Swift says. “Their whole operation depends on being able to use those hubs to link people across the world. That business model requires a level of predictability. As soon as you start to disrupt that predictability it is not easy.

“Not being able to get to your next destination is going to become really obvious to large numbers of people, due to delays and congestion in the hubs. It will become significant, so airlines will have to build in longer layover times to avoid delays.”

The potential economic impacts have not gone unnoticed and are being addressed at a political level. “This is a potential risk, which if not responded to today will face severe consequences tomorrow — not only for efficiency but also for safety and security,” GCAA deputy director general Ahmed Al Jallaf says. “We don’t want things to [continue to] pile up until an accident takes place.”

Al Jallaf is leading the political push to put in place a structure to tackle the problem. “It is taking a high level of attention and priority from the top of the UAE government. We are in contact with the various stakeholders,” he says. “We have taken the lead regionally. We initiated a major programme, to establish the Middle East Air Traffic Management Enhancement Programme, which I chair.”

The project has made 53 recommendations. It will split the country’s airspace into sectors and determine how each sector will work together for a seamless flow of traffic.

Al Jallaf says the implementation phase, which could cost hundreds of millions of dirhams, will begin “sometime next year” and will be implemented by 2018. Stakeholders, such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports, have approved the initial design and concept phases.

Airspace is broken up into corridors; planes must stay within these specific pathways when flying between countries by entering and exiting at specified border points. In the UAE, traffic flows north to south.

While the UAE is investing heavily in air traffic management (ATM) systems and technology, the bottlenecks occur once planes move over the border to Oman. There, the ATM system is far more archaic than in the UAE.

For example, there are only five entry/exit points for planes travelling from the UAE into Oman and the latter’s ATM system can handle only nine aircraft an hour. An industry source described the situation as being similar to driving on a motorway up to the Oman border, then turning onto a country road.

Oman and the UAE have been in talks to resolve the issue and in August 2014, Omani authorities announced they would build a world-first ATM system. Developed by Spanish firm Indra, it was billed as being a modern breakthrough. Omani Minister of Transport and Communications Dr Ahmed Mohammed Salem Al Futaisi told the Times of Oman that the new transitional air traffic control centre “will definitely support safety in the aviation sector and open new opportunities for the country to optimise the use of its airspace.”

But a year later, the plummeting oil price has relegated the project down the list of priorities. An unnamed official from Muscat Municipality recently told Gulf News designs and a budget for the ambitious project had not been approved.

Similar problems present themselves further on, as Gulf planes then encounter airspace over India — an enormous market for the UAE and Qatar. The required distance between planes is determined by each country and depends on how sophisticated its air traffic technology is at identifying individual aircraft. In the UAE, the rule is generally 20 miles [32 kilometres] apart, while in Europe and Bahrain more advanced systems allows planes to travel only 10 miles apart. However, in India the distance was until recently a whopping 80 miles, which forced aircraft entering Indian airspace to slow down. The distance has been halved to 40 miles in some areas, but still causes delays.

“This is non-harmonised airspace,” says Captain Richard Hill, chief operations officer at Etihad Airways since April 2009. India and the UAE are working to bring their rules closer inline, he says.

Part of the dialogue is also looking at changes and improvements to the vertical distances between planes. At present, planes flying at up to 29,000 feet must remain 2,000 feet apart, with this reduced to 1,000 feet when flying between 29,000 and 41,000 feet. This shorter distance was introduced in the late 1990s and local industry sources say tests are being carried out in the North Atlantic to see if improvements in aircraft technology and surveillance could see it reduced even further to 500 feet in the worst congested airspaces, potentially doubling the number of planes in the area. However, Hill says changes to current rules are unlikely to happen quickly and required further safety tests.

However the industry is hamstrung when it comes to airspace restrictions caused by warzones. Traditionally, the quickest way to Europe from the Gulf was to fly over Bahrain, then Iraq. However, ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq have forced Gulf carriers to frequently use Iranian airspace, which the cash-strapped Tehran regime has used to its advantage.

“Iran is three or four times more expensive,” an industry source told Arabian Business, estimating that Tehran could now account for about 40 percent of Gulf carriers’ spending on airspace access fees. “Iran is doing very nicely out of the closure of Iraqi airspace.”

Increased military operations in the region present another direct obstacle. Only about 40 percent of UAE airspace is accessible to civilian aircraft, with the remaining 60 percent reserved for military jet fighters.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general and CEO Tony Tyler addressed the issue during a speech at the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi in April last year. “We are trying to squeeze the fast-growing civil aviation component into a fraction of the airspace,” he said. “One solution is to develop partnerships and trust with the military to open more flexible-use zones. That is happening progressively — but it is not keeping pace with demand for air travel.”

The UAE military is considering allowing some civilian aircraft to use parts of its airspace after 6pm, when its exercises have finished. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has been given permission to operate its Johannesburg route through a military corridor over the Empty Quarter, in a move viewed as a significant step towards opening up other vast areas of military airspace.

“It is realistic,” Al Jallaf says. “We have very good relations with the military. We are discussing more. We have to understand the military and civil requirements.”

A global problem, airspace congestion is also presenting a challenge for Gulf carriers looking to expand into other international markets, particularly Asia. The three major GCC carriers — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways — are targeting growth in South-East Asia. Capacity on flights to the region increased by 54 percent, to 228,716 seats per week across the three airlines, between November 2011 and November 2013.

“Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia are really up there, Jakarta has a big bottleneck... It is having an impact on countries’ GDP and an impact on international trade,” NATS Services managing director Catherine Mason says.

“There is a long pipeline of orders for both Boeing and Airbus for deliveries mostly into those regions and if all of those orders are realised there just isn’t enough capacity in the way the airspace is designed to be able to accommodate all the movements required. So there are orders for aircraft but they frankly can’t fly where people want them to fly.”

Unsurprisingly, NATS believes investment is the answer.

“There is new technology to put satellites in orbit that will provide a greater level of accuracy to relay the position of aircraft to air traffic control,” Swift says. “That would give more sophistication and raise standards and put less strain on the system. There is no one magic technology, but the industry [must make sure it] uses all the tools modern aircraft have to use the airspace more effectively.”

It has been suggested that the Gulf create a European-style centralised regional air traffic management centre. But Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at UK-based Strategic Aero Research, says that is unlikely.

“Sadly this is a pipe dream and I doubt it’ll ever materialise. Just because there is a half-baked solution in Europe does not mean it’ll work for the GCC. And even if it was implemented, at what cost would this come? And who would shoulder [that cost]?” Ahmad says.

“Convergence, the lack of a centralised GCC aviation policy head and regulation are the main barriers between GCC nations.”

However, Al Jallaf remains optimistic. He is even thinking beyond the region, to a global solution. “We are keen to learn from others’ experiences. We are monitoring what is happening in the US, Europe and Asia. We are taking the best lessons … and are in engagement with elite consultants. At the end of the day, air traffic management will be managed through a global platform.”

Political momentum does appear to be behind this issue. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation and CEO and chairman of the Emirates Group, recently addressed the issue at the Dubai Airshow.

“If you [fly into Dubai] at midnight you sometimes have to sit in holding for 45 minutes before landing. The airspace situation needs re-organising… It will be on the agenda next year for the UAE and then maybe we’ll see it for the whole of the GCC over the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, chairman of the Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association (MEBAA) also warns aircraft congestion “is going to be an issue whether we like it or not”. “If we keep it as it is now there are going to be big, big issues for everybody, especially during take-off and landing,” he says.

Alnaqbi’s solution? A private jet.

“There are a lot of business airports and they are not really congested,” he explains. “It does impact us but to a lesser degree than airports. They fly to scheduled airports, we can fly anywhere, any time.”

Despite the complex international political, economic and safety issues, the political will to solve the issue appears to be there. Let’s hope the doomsday warnings of long delays do not come to pass — private jets are not an option for everyone.

For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.