Keeping crowded skies moving safely

Gleaming airliners and shiny new airports are fine, but they require modern, efficient air traffic control. This is a challenge that GCC and Mena countries ought to face without delay.

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A flying car debuted at a New York auto show early this month, generating a chorus of wry laughter at the notion of skies crowded with bad drivers. Even without any new competition, however, air traffic control (ATC) already faces serious challenges in many places, with the Gulf region high up the list.

At the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association, which speaks for 240 airlines, warned Monday that the Mena region could face troubling aerial bottlenecks within a few years.

Tony Tyler's message requires the prompt attention of policymakers. Civil aviation worldwide is forecast to grow steadily in the next decades, with Gulf carriers among the leaders. Eye-opening expansion of the UAE's airlines is a matter of national pride, and civil aviation is becoming a pillar of our economy. Other GCC states, too, have capitalised on geography, financing advantages, and changing travel patterns.

The result has been regional passenger growth of 11 per cent per year. Across our region, fleets and airports are expanding.

But modern airliners and gleaming terminals are not the whole story: almost unseen by passengers, a web of international agreements and another of high-tech communications are essential to ensure that people, freight and planes can span the globe as smoothly as possible.

Safety must always be paramount in aviation, but there are other challenges as well. Modern ATC optimises efficiency, bringing shorter flight times, reduced engine emissions and lower fares - or higher profits.

Mr Tyler warned that this region is not yet doing enough to speed the decisions needed to facilitate all of that. In this we are not alone: a Single European Skies project, to integrate EU air traffic control, is more than a decade old but still moving more slowly than a Cessna 152. The US, with just one regulator, is making better progress with its NextGen plan.

GCC countries have been talking about regional ATC improvements for some time. Mr Tyler's message should serve to accelerate progress.

Civil aviation, both passenger and freight, is a major cog in the world economy, and one that is growing more vital. Beyond its practical importance, civil aviation is in itself a symbol of the full potential of globalisation. Being in this industry's forefront is a source of pride; to stay there requires far-sighted planning.