THE GRIDLOCK ABOVE
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
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