Congestion good news for some in the Middle East

Aerospace firms eager to offer airspace congestion solutions as Raytheon and Boeing see opportunities for selling high-tech equipment in Middle East.

DUBAI . 24th November. 2009. AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL CENTRE. DUBAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.  Air Traffic Controllers  keep track of aircraft movements in the visual control room at the top of the air traffic control centre at Dubai International Airport.   Stephen Lock  /  The National. FOR TRAVEL *** Local Caption ***  SL-control-012.jpg
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The Middle East's air traffic woes could be a boon to aerospace companies hoping to cash in and provide high-tech solutions, including satellite-based tracking systems and state-of-the-art radars.

Growing congestion in the skies is a worrying consequence of the region's explosive aviation growth. Carriers such as Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have been adding dozens of aircraft and destinations each year. This has contributed to making the UAE airspace the most congested in the Middle East.

The chief executive of Dubai Airports, Paul Griffiths, has warned that constraints in the air pose "the single largest threat to aviation growth and the billions of dollars of additional economic activity its expansion is expected to generate".

In response to such worries, aerospace giants such as Raytheon and Boeing are promoting systems and services that promise to alleviate congestion by allowing aircraft to fly closer together and better circumvent inclement weather. Investing in such technologies would allow airports to avoid building more runways to cope with the growth, they say.

Raytheon, which says its technology is present in 60 per cent of the world's air-traffic control systems, has already provided its AutoTrac air-traffic control centre to the new Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai as well as surveillance radars throughout the region.

"We see opportunities to provide satellite-based augmented systems, radars, controller training and airport security," said Andy Zogg, the vice president of command and control systems at Raytheon.

The US company has also worked with local governments to set up GPS-based tracking of aircraft, a technology Boeing is also promoting.

"Once you go to satellite-enabled, airplanes today have the technology. They just need to be connected," said Sherry Carbary, the vice president of flight services at Boeing. "You can get a lot more throughput, and a lot less separation, because your navigation and surveillance is satellite-based and not radar-based."

The marketing efforts come as the US is planning its NextGen air-traffic management system to be unveiled over the next decade, with satellite-based technology, including GPS, replacing many ground-based radar systems. Europe's planned air-traffic management system takes a similar approach, while China is also planning a system-wide revamp.

"Everyone is starting up programmes because of airspace capacity issues," Ms Carbary said.

In the Middle East, each country has its own air-traffic control systems, an arrangement criticised as making matters worse.

"The external factors start with nationalism and politics getting in the way of logic," said Mr Griffiths, who is part of a working group called the Middle East Airspace Study along with officials from the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority. "There is needless concern over sovereignty issues which have long been overcome elsewhere."

Ms Carbary also noted that "huge issues" were looming. "A massive hub has been created in Dubai and you are starting to see airports around it, and they are all developed with different procedures, with different views of how to fly into that airport," she said.

Raytheon is working in India to set up a satellite-based system, which the US company promises will "set the standard" in air-traffic control. The company has positioned itself as a leader in today's technology - ground-based radar systems - as well as a key integrator of emerging technologies using satellites.

Boeing, meanwhile, is promoting its abilities as a "general contractor" to deliver next-generation technology for airports and airlines willing to invest in the advancements. Its push into air-traffic management comes amid an increasing emphasis on services as a way to add to the manufacturer's bottom line.

Boeing's flight services already make up 15 per cent of overall revenue through products such as navigation charts, flight planning and crew scheduling.