The United King­dom’s big­gest air nav­i­ga­tion ser­vice provider has im­por­tant lessons to share with the Mid­dle East, if the re­gion is will­ing to lis­ten. By Ayswarya Murthy

Qatar Today - - INSIDE THE ISSUE -

The United King­dom's big­gest air nav­i­ga­tion ser­vice provider has im­por­tant lessons to share with the Mid­dle East, if the re­gion is will­ing to lis­ten.

That there is lit­tle po­lit­i­cal will to­wards find­ing a joint so­lu­tion to the

re­gion's air traf­fic grid­lock has been echoed by many in­dus­try lead­ers in the

past, from Qatar Air­ways Group CEO Ak­bar Al Baker to se­nior ex­ec­u­tives from Boe­ing.

We ar­rive late for our meet­ing with John Swift, Direc­tor of NATS for MENA, and his col­league Ben Kiff, the re­gional Client Ad­vo­cate. Swift sym­pa­thises when he finds out that we had been trapped in traf­fic. And he prom­ises that it won't be long be­fore we see sim­i­lar grid­locks in the skies. The GCC states are ex­pected to re­ceive 450 mil­lion pas­sen­gers an­nu­ally by 2020. Air traf­fic move­ments in the Gulf airspace are pre­dicted to dou­ble be­tween now and 2030. Which is why this UK-based air traf­fic man­age­ment com­pany is find­ing its hands full with Mid­dle Eastern clients in re­cent years and has had to set up its re­gional head­quar­ters in Dubai, where they were first com­mis­sioned in 2006 to de­sign the air space around Al Mak­toum In­ter­na­tional air­port, and other re­gional of­fices in Mus­cat and Doha.

NATS is a ma­jor player in the ATC sec­tor in its home coun­try where it ser­vices 15 air­ports and all the on-route or area con­trollers within the bor­ders, which es­sen­tially join the dots along the flight path. That's 2.3 mil­lion flights a year, Swift says. “We are now in 30 coun­tries, pro­vid­ing con­sul­tancy, en­gi­neer­ing and train­ing ser­vices to air­ports and air­lines and other ATC or­gan­i­sa­tions to im­prove ef­fi­ciency,” he says. While they op­er­ate un­der a cen­tral reg­u­la­tory body (most of­ten the na­tional avi­a­tion author­ity) and ad­here to the stan­dards set by ICAO (In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a UN body), ATCs have di­ver­si­fied from the tra­di­tional gov­ern­ment-owned and op­er­ated mod­els of two decades ago. “Real­is­ti­cally, there are now a num­ber of mod­els along the con­tin­uum of fully gov­ern­ment-con­trolled to fully out­sourced, depend­ing on the am­bi­tions of gov­ern­ment and its ap­petite for risk, in­vest­ment and re­spon­si­bil­ity in man­ag­ing the ATC as­sets. There even are not-for-profit ATCs,” he says.

And this shift is a good thing, ac­cord­ing to Swift. “There is no deny­ing that the ef­fi­ciency and per­for­mance fo­cus as­so­ci­ated with the pri­vate sec­tor has its benefits. “But at the end of the day, it doesn't mat­ter who owns what as­sets. It's about get­ting the most out of them. “There is a lot of in­vis­i­ble in­fra­struc­ture that sup­ports air­port op­er­a­tions. Air space is a vi­tal re­source; as im­por­tant as the hy­dro­car­bons un­der­ground,” Swift says.

An in­te­grated Gulf air space

NATS be­gan op­er­a­tions in the Mid­dle East in 2006 when it was en­gaged help out with the “star­tling growth that was hap­pen­ing and new ca­pa­bil­i­ties that were re­quired”. Since then the com­pany has worked with cus­tomers in UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. “Help­ing in­di­vid­ual states ad­dress their in­di­vid­ual prob­lems has pro­vided a buf­fer for more im­me­di­ate growth but the only so­lu­tion go­ing for­ward is in­te­gra­tion and find­ing ways to work with the neigh­bours,” Swift says firmly. "What we are do­ing now is the equiv­a­lent of spend­ing a lot of money to build a six-lane high­way to the bor­der and then all the cars hav­ing to queue to get on to the sin­gle lane on the other side."

Swift is dis­ap­pointed to find that at the re­cent GCC for­eign min­is­ters' meet air traf­fic man­age­ment is not on the agenda. “I see the GCC rail project but no equiv­a­lent air project,” he says. That there is lit­tle po­lit­i­cal will to­wards find­ing a joint so­lu­tion to this has been echoed by many in­dus­try lead­ers in the past, from Qatar Air­ways CEO Ak­bar Al Baker to se­nior ex­ec­u­tives from Boe­ing. The con­ver­sa­tions stop even be­fore they begin be­cause of ques­tions over na­tional sovereignty, ac­cord­ing to him. “Peo­ple are still con­cerned when they hear about a cen­tral Gulf or Arab con­trol. But it's not about some­one tak­ing over your airspace; it's about an in­ter­na­tional net­work that sup­ports growth in the re­gion by iden­ti­fy­ing amend­ments in route struc­ture that'll solve a prob­lem some­where else and of­fers guid­ance to na­tional au­thor­i­ties be­cause of its holis­tic view of growth plans, projects and in­vest­ments across the bound­aries. That's a re­al­is­tic way of talk­ing about what could hap­pen and en­sure that it doesn't get shot down due to the pol­i­tics,” he says.

And con­sid­er­ing the kind of growth pro­jected in the re­gion and the im­por­tance this space holds for other in­ter­na­tional air­lines fer­ry­ing cargo and pas­sen­gers be­tween Asia-Pa­cific, Africa and Europe, this con­ver­sa­tion has to hap­pen sooner rather than later. What lit­tle ef­forts that were started in this di­rec­tion, like the Mid­dle East Airspace En­hance­ment Plan, are not pro­gress­ing nearly quick enough. “A lot of work needs to be done and it can't wait till con­ges­tion be­comes un­bear­able. It needs con­sid­er­able time, for­ward plan­ning and de­lib­er­a­tion,” Swift says. Designing just the Qatari air space took close to two years.

Paving roads in the sky

Air space de­sign is the cor­ner­stone to de­ter­mine how a coun­try best utilises this re­source. “There are two ba­sic types of air space de­sign – the ones that go in and out of an air­port and the on-route sec­tors (which is ba­si­cally the high­way net­work in the sky),” ex­plains Kiff. So while the designer has to be cre­ative, ef­fi­ciency is para­mount. Ul­ti­mately ev­ery stake­holder - be it the air­ports, air­lines or the pas­sen­gers - want the same thing: the short­est pos­si­ble dis­tance and ef­fi­ciency in fuel con­sump­tion (sav­ings from which air­lines

“There is a lot of in­vis­i­ble in­fra­struc­ture that sup­ports air­port op­er­a­tions. And air space is a vi­tal re­source, as im­por­tant as the hy­dro­car­bons un­der­ground.”

John Swift Direc­tor, MENA NATS

hope­fully would pass on). But for air space de­sign­ers, th­ese are un­der­lined by other con­cerns, like not com­pro­mis­ing con­troller work­load and al­lo­cat­ing and keep­ing out of mil­i­tary air space (which, in some Gulf coun­tries, is as much as 50% of the to­tal avail­able space). It has to be de­signed around th­ese con­flicts, sim­u­lated and tested with all the stake­hold­ers be­fore be­ing val­i­dated and in­tro­duced, Kipp says. It's a painstak­ing process even when you are not nec­es­sar­ily start­ing from scratch.

“NATS had a per­ma­nent five-mem­ber team based in Qatar spe­cial­is­ing in project man­age­ment, airspace de­sign, tran­si­tion plan­ning, train­ing and (ATC) pro­ce­dure de­sign who worked since 2011 over­haul­ing ATC from the ground up for the Ha­mad In­ter­na­tional Air­port,” Swift points out. Spe­cial­ist re­sources from the UK sup­ple­mented this team on an ad-hoc ba­sis, in­clud­ing Fast Time and Real Time sim­u­la­tion ex­perts, ATC in­struc­tors, pro­ce­dure de­sign­ers, car­tog­ra­phers and data pub­li­ca­tion spe­cial­ists. A sig­nif­i­cant part of this was “designing the charts and the maps to be used by con­trollers and air crews, help­ing train the con­trollers till they were com­fort­able with the new pro­ce­dures and in­ter­act­ing with Qatar Air­ways and the Emiri Air Force so that they were aware of the route and the struc­ture of the airspace”.

Tech­nol­ogy has now made it pos­si­ble to plot the most op­ti­mal route ac­cord­ing to air­craft spec­i­fi­ca­tions. “Ear­lier we had a one-size-fits-all so­lu­tion but choos­ing the av­er­age (for ex­am­ple the an­gle of climb dur­ing take-off ) is not al­ways the best,” Kiff says. Ul­ti­mately the de­sign should call for min­i­mal con­troller in­ter­ven­tion. “ATCs were very hands on ear­lier but ide­ally in the fu­ture they will only need to plan against per­for­mance, iden­tify prob­lems and in­ter­vene early. Our vi­sion is that a decade or two from now, when a lot more au­to­ma­tion and tools will be avail­able, ATCs will be able to iden­tify a con­ges­tion that would oc­cur four hours into the flight and cor­rect it even be­fore take­off,” he says.

Build­ing out in­ef­fi­ciency

Th­ese kinds of in­no­va­tions will be the only so­lu­tions avail­able to us as air traf­fic con­ges­tion grows. One ex­am­ple is the time based-sep­a­ra­tion sys­tem that is cur­rently on trial at Heathrow. “Tra­di­tion­ally, air­craft are sep­a­rated by dis­tance,” Kipp says. “But strong head­winds could mean that by the time they are close to land­ing, they are more or less sep­a­rated than when they started out. So our so­lu­tion is to sep­a­rate them by time, al­low­ing for the ef­fects of the wind to be cal­cu­lated.” The con­cept should de­liver a 50% re­duc­tion in de­lay caused by strong head­winds, sav­ing 80,000 min­utes a year.

An­other nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of ATC op­er­a­tions is cross-bor­der ar­rival man­age­ment.

“In the past, sys­tems were straight­for­ward; you iden­tify a craft through radar and use the ra­dio to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with it. There was not a lot of data pro­cess­ing in­volved,” Swift, an ex-air traf­fic con­troller re­mem­bers.

“But now we use data to be able to ad­vise on po­ten­tial fu­ture con­flicts and pro­vide warn­ing alerts.” The key is in­for­ma­tion shar­ing. “The in­dus­try is rich in terms of data but we don't share enough of it, even within state bound­aries,” Kipp laments. “Tra­di­tion­ally, you start man­ag­ing the air­craft once it be­comes part of the na­tional bound­ary. But if you could share in­for­ma­tion about it even be­fore that, you could be more ef­fec­tive in man­ag­ing the traf­fic in your air space. If you know there is a de­lay at the air­port, you can slow the air­craft down while it's still 2,000 miles away. Just a 5% re­duc­tion in speed could mean the air­craft ar­rives 10 min­utes later at the air­port, sav­ing it the time and fuel it wastes in hold­ing time, wait­ing for a run­way to get free,” he says. There is an in­her­ent in­ef­fi­ciency in the sys­tem and a big-scale co­or­di­na­tion ef­fort can re­duce this. But in terms of in­ter­na­tional travel, this co­or­di­na­tion is a chal­lenge.

“Take a flight that is fly­ing across the GCC,” Swift says. “In a short time, it flies through Omani, Emi­rati and Bahraini air space which are cur­rently be­ing man­aged as three sep­a­rate net­works.” But what if all th­ese air spa­ces op­er­ated as a sin­gle net­work? It's a pos­si­bil­ity that de­mands noth­ing but our clos­est and most ur­gent at­ten­tion

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