UAE opens ‘highways in the sky’ to ease air traffic congestion

New additions will help airlines save US$14.6m of fuel each year, say officials

A picture take on September 14, 2017 shows Emirates planes parked at the tarmac at Dubai's International Airport.
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A major restructuring of the UAE's airspace – which was completed this month – has added 150 new GPS "waypoints" for aircraft movement, in an attempt to ease congestion, cut fuel costs and pave the way for greater expansion of the country's aviation sector.

"The Air Space Restructuring project aims to deliver crucial benefits to the UAE's aviation sector, enhancing airspace capacity to meet forecast air traffic demand for 2020 and beyond," Dubai Air Navigation Services (Dans), which has overseen the three-year project with other bodies including Abu Dhabi Airports, said on Sunday.

In air navigation, waypoints typically comprise a series of GPS points that create airways to streamline traffic.

The changes are expected to help airlines save US$14 million per year in fuel, and cut carbon emissions by 90,401 metric tonnes. Overall air access will be increased to all airports in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, Dans said.

To meet demand, regional governments have been under pressure to resolve the problem of congested airspace, brought about by rapid growth in aircraft movements over the past two decades. In the UAE, flight delays were becoming increasingly common and the restructuring was intended to tackle such issues.


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Dubai's flagship carrier Emirates welcomed the completion of the project. "The airspace restructuring project benefits all stakeholders, with better capacity utilisation for airports, more efficient operations for airlines, and ultimately, better flight experiences for travellers," said Adel Al Redha, executive vice president

“The UAE leads the way when it comes to innovative and collaborative approaches to modernising air space management, and we look forward to working with all aviation stakeholders on future phases.”

Christopher Grazel, senior vice president Network Control Centre at flydubai also hailed the project. “This development will bring advantages to the overall airline industry in the region and passengers flying using the Dubai aviation hub,” said Mr Grazel.

“A major highlight of the project has been the overall collaboration between the major stakeholders (Air Navigation Service Providers, GCAA, airports and airlines) to achieve what is the largest airspace change in UAE aviation history.”

Dans said the UAE restructuring project had achieved "unprecedented milestones", including the introduction of 150 "highways in the sky", it said.

Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of Dubai Airports, which operates Dubai International Airport and Al Maktoum International, said in November such new "gateways" would ultimately allow for simultaneous flight arrivals and departures, significantly reducing delays.

"At present, there are on average 37 arrivals at DXB per hour, versus 41 departures per hour, and the high arrivals rate is a major constraint on our capacity – slots are a bit of a challenge," Mr Griffiths had said.

Freeing airspace is a pressing need given the anticipated growth for regional aviation. Demand for air travel in the Middle East is expected to rise by 7 per cent year-on-year in 2018, according to the International Air Transport Association. And air congestion has been identified as a key deterrent to growth by Iata.

"The Gulf has done well in building airport capacity. But that has not been matched with improvements in air traffic management to handle the growth," Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of Iata said this month.  

Dans and Dubai Airports did not provide details on how restructuring would affect arrival and departure numbers in the hours before this article went to press.

“While there are an additional 150 waypoints, I would surmise that only a small percentage will have been introduced [to date] so that the wider air space management systems can incrementally deal with more flights as and when they arrive and depart,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research.

The project has also trained 168 air traffic controllers to manage the redesigned airspace, and implemented 90 new air traffic management (ATM) "procedures", Dans said.

These are a variety of measures to increase efficiency, such as new navigational routings, elevation and approach requirements, runway operations and aircraft weight measurements, which determine whether a shorter runway can be used to lessen taxiing and subsequent fuel burn.

“Coupled with the introduction of new air traffic controllers, new ATM procedures enable airlines to fly aircraft more precisely in line with scheduled timings to reduce fuel burn and emissions, and work towards allowing a greater number of flights to be handled,” Mr Ahmad said.

“This will be key, too, when DWC is fully operational…because there will be immense pressure for it to perform flawlessly from day one.”