GENEVA // Gulf airlines are being held back in their bid to become dominant players in global aviation by increasingly crowded airspace.
Come fly with us:
Industry Insights Take to the skies with The National as it charts the aviation industry. Learn More
The limited corridors in which civilian planes are permitted to fly is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry as it expands, the head of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) said.
The observation comes as UAE aviation authorities study the redesign of UAE airspace to accommodate more flights and strike a flurry of open-skies deals with their counterparts in a bid to boost air traffic capacity.
This year alone, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) has signed some 29 initial agreements and 21 air navigation agreements with other countries. That is more than double the number of such agreements signed last year.
"Airspace is a problem," said Tony Tyler, the director general and chief executive of Iata. "Only 40 per cent of the airspace in the Gulf region is available for civilian operations. There's a lot that's closed off for military and other purposes. Iata's working with the authorities to see what we can do to make the space that we can use more efficient to use and of course also to free up more space."
UAE airlines are expanding rapidly as more international travellers use Dubai and Abu Dhabi to change planes on long-haul routes, while carriers such as Etihad and Emirates spend billions of dollars to expand their fleets and add destinations.
Air traffic movements expanded by more than 7 per cent in October to 61,705 - or 1,990 per day, compared to a year earlier, according to GCAA data.
Dubai this year announced a US$7.8 billion (Dh28.65bn) expansion plan for Dubai International Airport, which would increase its annual capacity from 60 million passengers to 90 million by 2018, while Abu Dhabi is investing up to Dh27bn in a redevelopment and expansion programme for its international airport.
"What's happening as well is traditionally traffic has flown north-south in that region, but now we're starting to see a lot more east-west traffic as well, which of course complicates airspace management and makes it more difficult to use the space that is available," said Mr Tyler.
There would have to be cooperation between the Gulf states to manage the issue.
"Cooperation in a coherent regional approach is needed to manage the growth safely and efficiently," he said.
Iata has outlined three priorities to handle the challenge of limited airspace: more route options, the harmonisation of technology and operations, and "flexible use of airspace in cooperation with the military".
Iata is forecasting 8.5 per cent growth a year in passenger demand in the UAE to 2015.
"The available airspace in the Gulf is a concern," said Saj Ahmad, an analyst at FBE Aerospace in London. "It doesn't necessarily translate into a safety issue if the flight traffic management systems in place can cope with congestion."
He said that as new airports come on stream and with the growth of existing airports, governments would have to address the airspace issue.
Iata said it was supporting the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation's Middle East Regional Airspace Review to provide air traffic management solutions in the near and long term.
"And under the acronym MEAUSE, for Middle East Airspace Users and Stakeholder Engagement, we are working to link governments, suppliers, ANSPs [air navigation service providers], the military, airlines and airports to ensure alignment of air navigation and airport investment plans with the needs of the airspace user - both civil and military," Mr Tyler said last week at the Arab Air Carriers Organization annual general meeting in Abu Dhabi.
"We all have high expectations that this innovative regional approach will clear bottlenecks and ensure that airspace capabilities keep pace with the region's growth."
Iata also highlighted that European governments could learn from the Gulf region's approach to the aviation sector.
Tomorrow's exclusives tonight:
Industry Insights e-newsletter Get the pick of out premium Business content direct to your inbox. Sign up
"The enormous growth we've seen in the Gulf shows that if governments have policies that are supportive and helpful to aviation it can very much help to drive economic growth," said Mr Tyler.
"If governments can provide the infrastructure and policies of support for aviation rather than just taxation of aviation, governments will reap the growth through economic growth in their own countries."