GCC airspace proves growing worry

As Gulf airlines boost their fleets by hundreds of aircraft, dealing with the increased congestion this will produce requires serious and timely intervention.
An Airbus A380 rolls out of a paint hangar during a branding ceremony of Etihad Airways. Fabian Bimmer / Reuters
An Airbus A380 rolls out of a paint hangar during a branding ceremony of Etihad Airways. Fabian Bimmer / Reuters

Arabian Gulf carriers ordered hundreds of aircraft for their rapid expansions, they are now plagued with too many planes and limited airspace, potentially outgrowing themselves and threatening their hub-concept of connecting flights.

A build-up of air traffic in the skies above this country and the wider GCC has been described by the International Air Transport Association (Iata) as one of the most serious problems threatening the growth of the aviation in the region.

Tony Tyler, the director and chief executive of the Iata, has said aircraft are frequently delayed on the ground or kept flying holding patterns above the region’s airports for up to an hour.

In the UAE alone, Emirates Airline expects to continue receive about 20 new aircraft per year for the next three years. By 2020, its fleet will consist of more than 250 aircraft. Similarly Etihad Airways expects its fleet to reach 260 aircraft by 2025.

The budget carrier flydubai is expecting its fleet to reach 150 aircraft by 2023, as it received its 43rd aircraft last week. Sharjah-based Air Arabia expects to have 100 aircraft by 2022.

“We have issues with the management of the airspace,” the Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said at the Arab Air Carriers Organisation conference in Dubai last month.

“Making congestions and bottle necks in airspace is causing us to encounter millions of dollars of unnecessary fuel spent, holding time, or going around the runway.” Fuel constitutes about 30 per cent of an airline’s cost, according to Iata.

To address the issue, the UAE’s civil aviation authority tasked Airbus ProSky, the air traffic management subsidiary of the European plane maker Airbus, to carry out a study into the outlook for air traffic through to 2030.

The study came up with 53 recommendations to help prepare the country for the future and alleviate current saturation levels.

“The particular problem for the UAE is that you get about 70 per cent of traffic either descending or taking-off from an airport,” says Sebastien Borel, the vice president of customer affairs for Airbus ProSky.

“Airspace re-design is needed to accommodate this traffic.”

Airports with congested airspace face delays in take-off and landing. This can be particularly problematic for passengers with connecting flights. Cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are taking advantage of their strategic location between the East and West to become global hubs. Their rapidly expanding airlines keep adding new destinations and frequencies to connect passengers flying between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Dubai Airport alone is expected to clock up 71 million passengers by the end of the year, putting it on track to surpass London Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport for international passengers.

However, this huge growth could slow down if nothing is done to manage the crowded airspace.

“The whole business model here is to connect from Europe to Asia to Africa,” says Mr Borel. “If you have a broken system because your flight arrives late, this can impact the business of the airports.”

According to Mr Borel, 70 per cent of passengers recorded in this country are connecting to other flights. The average connecting time in the country is between1-1.5 hours.

Among the recommended solutions by Airbus Prosky is opening up airways that are currently for military use only.

Iata warned in April the Gulf airline boom could turn to gridlock unless more military airspace is given over to civilian use.

“Between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the airspace is reserved for the military,” says Mr Tyler. “So we are trying to squeeze the fast-growing civil aviation component into a fraction of the airspace.”

Airbus Prosky suggests a flexible use of military and civilian airspace, where the airspace is mutually shared between the two.

“Military sometimes need airspace but when you don’t use it why would you block the airspace,” Mr Borel says. “Some countries block the airspace no matter what, even if there’s no military operation and nothing is happening. They say, ‘this airspace will not be used.’”

But there are better examples such as Morocco, which opens its airspace entirely for civilian aircraft, unless there is a need for military use, according to Mr Borel.

In a progressive move, the UAE has opened up a route between its military airspace for civilian aircraft. This corridor offers greater flexibility for airlines and avoids some of the fuel wasted by having to avoid military-only airspace, says Mr Borel.


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Published: December 10, 2014 04:00 AM


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