Airspace management is key to Arabian Gulf economy
With the contract award of phase 3 of the UAE Airspace Restructuring Project to an international firm roughly two months ago, the UAE has taken a critical step forward in supporting aviation’s growth both in the country and the wider region.
Airspace is the invisible pillar of every nation’s transport infrastructure and is a fundamental, if sometimes overlooked, building block for economies seeking growth and modernisation. For the UAE, which boasts one of the world’s highest aviation growth rates, investment in airspace management is of paramount importance. Passenger traffic through Dubai International Airport exceeded 78 million people last year, and the airport led the world in the number of international passengers.
The total economic impact of the aviation sector in Dubai alone was US$26.7 billion in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available; this is equivalent to 8.1 per cent of Dubai’s total GDP and 416,500 jobs, or 21 per cent of total employment. By 2020 it is expected to be US$31.4bn,. This will support 449,500 jobs – 17.6 per cent of total employment.
Regionally, the number of passengers transported by GCC carriers has more than tripled in the past decade to 150 million, and according to Boeing, air traffic in the GCC is expected to grow by 6.2 per cent a year over the next 20 years.
The current vitality of the sector and the ability to attain these lofty – but reachable – goals must not be taken for granted. A report commissioned last year by Nats and produced by Oxford Economics showed that unless changes are implemented in airspace management, the region can expect a $16.3bn loss of economic growth caused by increased delays to flights resulting from insufficient air traffic capacity, management and staffing.
This loss can be avoided if the right measures are put in place early enough. Governments in the region should look to public-private partnerships to play a role in the collaborative development of the region’s airspace, alongside airlines, airports, governments and civil and military authorities.
A key area where these partnerships can help is in enabling the most efficient use of military airspace.
Half of the airspace in the GCC is exclusively for military use. Through partnerships with leading private firms, new technologies can be deployed to help the UAE and other GCC countries expand the flexible use of this airspace while still maintaining critical national security. Just last month the company for which I work, Nats, announced an agreement with the Japan Air Navigation Service, paving the way for a joint approach to air traffic management in Japanese civil and military airspace above the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
It will require crucial collaboration and cooperation between civil and military authorities, which will promote aviation-led economic development while ensuring national security in a complex and evolving geopolitical environment. It will also enable better use of the airspace, which will directly benefit all stakeholders, inbound and outbound travellers, and wider society.
The United Kingdom is an example of a country with a long history of successfully integrating civil and military operations, where air-traffic management companies work side-by-side with military controllers to manage the airspace in the most optimal way.
It is therefore encouraging to see that the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority has created this type of partnership to implement a road map to restructure the UAE’s airspace through phase 3 of the UAE Airspace Restructuring Project.
This is certainly a significant step in the right direction, but it is also important that these partnerships tackle wider issues such as developing the skills of our local workforce; well-trained people remain at the heart of any sustainable strategy for the successful growth of aviation in the region. Nats, through strategic partnerships with local government entities, has helped to train nationals across the region, including the training and qualification of 115 Omani engineers.
With nationalisation rates as low as 20 per cent in some countries, it is crucial that any air traffic management strategy includes comprehensive training programmes for nationals to ensure that they are able to fill the positions that are key to their nation’s strategies for economic growth and diversification.
Ben Kiff is the Middle East director for Nats, an air-traffic management company.
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Updated: August 10, 2016 04:00 AM