Crowded Skies

More and more aircraft are flying in the skies above the Middle East, but air traffic controllers can cope with this growth due to the use of RVSM.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  January 3, 2005

|~|atc_m.jpg|~||~|At numerous airports around the region, construction workers are building new terminals and laying down new runways to support the growth of the region’s fleet. However, these aeroplanes also need to be accommodated in the air, and this is much harder to achieve, as there is no way of building more sky. Instead, the region’s air traffic controllers are cramming more aeroplanes into the same amount of space, by using new technologies to improve the efficiencies of the region’s skies. The skies above the Middle East are among the busiest in the world, both because of the region’s central position between Europe, Africa, Asia and Asia/Pacific — which means there are a large number of trans-continental flights passing overhead — and also because of the rapid growth of the region’s airlines and airports. The UAE is the centre for much of this action due to the fast growth of its four national airlines — Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air and Air Arabia — which are constantly adding new flights to their timetables. The country’s airports, especially Dubai, are also regularly handling more flights from other airlines, which are placing growing demands on the Abu Dhabi FIR (Flight Information Region). The area now handles an average of 1060 flights a day, excluding intra-UAE flights, which makes it by far the busiest FIR in the Middle East. “We have got a bigger civil aviation industry than any other country in the region,” comments Riis Johansen, director, air navigation services, UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). “We have by a wide margin the highest density [in the region], as our FIR is one of the smallest FIRs as far as size is concerned... [All the flights] are therefore being forced into a fairly small area, which means we have to make sure they navigate more accurately.” However, the UAE, and the wider Middle East, has been able to increase the number of aircraft flying in its skies through the implementation of reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) technology. This came into effect in late November 2003, and it effectively doubled the number of airways available in the skies by reducing the vertical distance needed between aircraft. Prior to the implementation of RVSM, aircraft crossing each other in the skies had to be at least 2000 feet above or below each other. This then meant that only three airways were available between 30,000 and 40,000 feet, in either direction, and as most aircraft only wanted the higher two lanes, there was tremendous pressure in the skies. However, following the implementation of RVSM, aeroplanes can fly with distances of just 1000 feet between them, which means six airways can be operated in the same airspace, including more at the higher altitudes preferred by modern aircraft. “RVSM has had a very big impact,” comments Ali Humaid Al-Adawi, director, air navigation services, Directorate General of Civil Aviation & Meteorology, Oman. “We are now able to accommodate many more flights than we were.” “What has to be borne in mind is that the traffic growth has been almost explosive since we introduced RVSM,” adds Johansen. “So, it has helped us tremendously, as we have all these extra levels available.” Airlines have benefited from the extra airways, as their aircraft are more often able to fly at the optimal level for fuel burn, which is usually from 35,000 feet upwards. This has therefore had a significant impact on fuel usage, around a 2% cut, according to figures cited by the FAA, which is rolling out RVSM in domestic US airspace from the 20th of this month. Given the high price of oil, this has had a clear impact on airlines’ profit margins. “It is also a win for the environment,” adds Ron Rigney, operations manager, Airservices Australia. “These aircraft are now operating closer to their optimal fuel burn levels, which means they are not being held down at inefficient levels where they burn off excessive amounts of fuel, generating more pollution.”||**|||~||~||~|RVSM has now been implemented in the vast majority of the Middle East, including all of Egypt, the Arabian peninsular, the Levant and Iran, due to a region-wide project led and sponsored by the UAE’s GCAA. However, Iraq is a notable exception to this. Implementing RVSM and opening the country’s skies would be a key breakthrough for the region’s airlines, as Iraq lies beneath the most direct route between the Gulf and Europe, the Gulf and North America, as well as between Europe and areas of the Pacific. Flying around the country adds about 20 minutes onto journey times, as aircraft are forced to go over Saudi Arabia or Iran instead of flying direct, which has an obvious impact on fuel burn and costs. “What affects us [in the UAE] most is Iraq,” says Johansen. “That has got a considerable effect, and we are driving from the UAE side quite hard to get those airways re-opened.” “There is a route available [over Iraq], but it is not that beneficial because of its alignment, and also because of a lack of RVSM in Baghdad FIR,” he adds. “We are therefore eagerly waiting for the opening [of Iraq], as that would benefit us a lot.” The challenges for opening up the skies in Iraq are mainly to be found on the ground, as the security situation is delaying the implementation of the necessary infrastructure for supporting widespread commercial air traffic, including RVSM. The most notable is the lack of good communications between Baghdad and adjacent FIRs, which is key to handing over flights, and also between ATC on the ground and aircraft in the airline. “The one big technical issue [in Iraq] is the lack of VHF communications,” notes Johansen. “It has taken quite a lot of time to get that up and running in Iraqi airspace, and without VHF communication, you cannot do efficient air traffic control in a high density environment.” The other biggest challenge within the Middle East region is in Syria. Firstly, long-running attempts to open airways across the Northeast of the country, which would allow aircraft to cut the corner into Europe, are yet to reach fruition. More importantly, while the country has RVSM, it is yet to establish a radar network, which means that aircraft entering its airspace have to be separated by 10 minutes rather than one minute, as in other parts of the region. This therefore reduces the number of aircraft that can use the country’s airways at one time, and it also means that other FIRs have to spread out traffic before planes can enter Syrian airspace, which increases their workload. “One of the requirements for getting reduced longitudinal separation is to see radar services in Damascus FIR. However, getting all the various things together for this is not a small job,” comments Johansen. “I wish we had it now — and I do not really have an estimate for when it will be ready — we are just waiting.” Muscat faces the same issues in the opposite direction, as it needs to spread out traffic before aircraft can enter Bombay FIR. However, the use of RVSM has greatly eased these problems as there are now more levels available for the aircraft to be spread out over. “[RVSM] makes it easier to transfer flights on the same level; that is one thing we have noticed,” comments Al-Adawi. “Most of the coordination that was done before is now going through smoothly without any problems,” he adds. ||**|||~||~||~|However, while RVSM has now been implemented within the Middle East and India, other areas that the region passes traffic onto have yet to reach the same levels of deployment. To the north, Afghanistan has yet to achieve RVSM, while to the west Africa is also largely without the technology, aside from Egypt and Tunisia. As such, air traffic controllers in Cairo, for instance, need to transition traffic flying into Sudanese and Libyan airspace from the six RVSM levels to the pre-RVSM or CVSM (Conventional Vertical Separation Minima) three level arrangement. Similarly, Yemeni controllers need to undertaken the same task for aircraft flying into Asmana and Mogadishu FIRs. This complexity was due to come to an end shortly, as African states were meant to switch over to RVSM this month. However, this move was delayed for at least a year, following a meeting between African and Middle East ATC officials in Kampala in October, as the countries realised that they were not ready for it. Instead, they have given themselves an extra 12 months to lay the necessary groundwork, but even this may be somewhat optimistic. “African governments are barely keeping the balance of ensuring a net positive Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and managing huge foreign debt profiles. Where on their list of priorities will logistics for RVSM implementation be found, especially since the cost of implementation is more obvious to them than the benefits?” the Nigerian Aviation Safety Initiative (NASI), an African aviation watchdog, asked in a letter sent to ICAO in September. The challenges faced by Africa in implementing RVSM are huge. The main ones begin in the air, as much of the continent’s elderly fleet, notably its large number of Boeing 707s, are not RVSM compliant. Regulations will also need to be put in place for flying in RVSM airspace, which was not an issue in the Middle East, as most airlines here were already operating in Europe, where RVSM was already in place. African governments will also need to undertake a huge amount of study and analysis before the system can be implemented. In the Middle East region, which is considerably smaller than Africa, over 93,000 different flights were monitored over a month. Each of these needed to be calibrated at every border point as well, to ensure that the data was accurate. “When you do data processing on that, even with automation, it is a big job,” comments Johansen. The Middle East also benefited from having only 11 FIRs in its RVSM project — rather than the 50-plus that would need to work together in Africa — but even so, it still took three years to put RVSM in place. “If we had not had full control of this task, we could not have accomplished it in time,” adds Johansen. “We had the benefit of strong support in every respect; money, staff, facilities, equipment.” Lacking these same advantages, it is unlikely that Africa will be ready to move onto RVSM anytime soon, which will be to the determinant of African airlines, international airlines flying to destinations on the continent, and also to Middle East air traffic controllers, who will have to continue transitioning RVSM traffic into the old three-tier airways. The onus, according to NASI, therefore “is on the proponents of the [RVSM] programme to aid the operators, especially in the issue of cost of aircraft and crew readiness… The truth remains, however, that most African operators will not be ready for the RVSM implementation by January 2006.”||**||

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