Efficient Air Traffic Management a must to decongest GCC airspace

Air traffic congestion in the GCC remains a major challenge to the region’s aviation industry, which supports more than 2.4mn jobs and generates $130bn in gross domestic product. The average delay per flight attributed to air traffic control (ATC issues) in the GCC region is currently estimated at 29 minutes.  Without urgent progress, that could double by 2025, costing in excess of $7bn in lost productivity time to passengers and adding over $9bn to airline operating costs, a study by the International Air Transport Association has shown. Passenger demand in Mena, driven by the GCC region, is set to expand by 5.7% every year on average over the next decade and a half, to become a market of nearly 380mn passengers by 2035.

A Boeing 737-800 aircraft
A Boeing 737-800 aircraft, operated by Oman Air, stands beside the passenger terminal at Muscat International Airport

Like airlines, airports in the region too have engaged in substantial development projects to supply more capacity. The region’s available airspace and air traffic capability, however, have not kept up with its ambition.  Approximately half of the Middle East airspace is reserved for military flights, which obviously adds to the air traffic control congestion.Without an increase in the overall efficiency of the Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems in the GCC through improved airspace design, the region’s world-class hubs may be caught in a gridlock. Traffic congestion often results in flight delays, thereby affecting the on-time performance of various airlines.  An important benefit of decreased flight delays is the value of the time saved for passengers. 

In addition to passenger delay costs, there are also delay costs to airlines, which affect the overall profitability of the airlines. More than 30% of an airline’s operational cost is from fuel consumption, an estimate shows.  The fact, however, remains that the region’s geography is a major hurdle towards effectively decongesting its air space. The countries in the region are located geographically very close to one another. Within five or 10 minutes, one will be flying into another air traffic management (ATM) area or may be even more. “We have been talking to respective militaries through regulators in each of these countries to free up space for commercial use,” IATA regional vice-president (Africa and Middle East) Mohamed Ali Albakri told me in Seoul recently. “The 29 minutes average delay per flight we are talking about would have increased by now… people flying in and out of the region would have noticed. 

This will continue to increase as the region’s aviation industry grows with the launch of new airlines, more flights and destinations,” Albakri noted. Experts suggest that the region’s air space should be managed in a more integrated way. “We believe the military could allow the use of more commercial air space. And of course, the entire redesign of the air space could free up and provide the capacity that is needed,” Albakri suggested. At its annual general meeting in Seoul last month, the global trade body of airlines said it was talking to militaries through the regulators in these countries to free up space for commercial use. The association has also been encouraging and working with countries in the region and regulators concerned to upgrade their technologies and redesign their air space.

 “It has got a lot to do in terms of redesigning their air space and upgrading their technology that will allow them to increase their capacity (of existing Flight Information Region or FIRs). “We cannot create more air space. But we can certainly create more efficiencies,” Albakri stressed. The challenges facing air traffic control are recognised throughout the region and initiatives have been launched to quantify and address the issues. However, the pace of progress often does not meet that of continued traffic growth.Several ongoing initiatives to decongest the region’s airspace include the GCC Air Navigation Committee and the ‘Middle East ATM Enhancement Programme.

GCC’s aviation sector contributes significantly in terms of GDP and employment, and still has a great potential to generate growth. There are several factors at play in the rise of aviation in the Middle East — the region’s strategic geographic location between Europe and Asia, increasing inbound tourism to the region, and large airport developments across the region. Undoubtedly, aviation has the power to create significant prosperity.A safe, secure, efficient and sustainable air transport industry pays huge social and economic dividends.  But despite the vast benefits enabled by aviation connectivity, the operating environment for airlines in Mena still remains challenging.

Sources and photo-credits: Gulf Times