Sunday, May 17, 2020

30-Minute Shorter Delhi-Mumbai Flight, Big Savings for Airlines: Flexible Use of Airspace is a Win-Win

In 2019, India handled 2.6 million commercial air traffic movements. That is, approximately 7,000 flights criss-crossed the Indian skies daily. Yet in most cases the flights did not take the most direct path (which is a straight line) because of a number of reasons. These include, navigation aids, radar coverage and above all airspace restrictions.

In one of the aviation sector reforms announced on Saturday as a part of the stimulus package, the finance minister has highlighted that these restrictions on airspace will be eased. The outcome: more direct routes for airlines (read: shorter) which consequently means lower emissions and fuel burn.

The airspace of India covers 2.8 million square nautical miles including 1.04 million square nautical miles of continental airspace and another 1.74 million square nautical miles oceanic airspace (Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean). Of this airspace, 65 per cent is controlled by the military while the remaining is controlled by the Airports Authority of India (AAI). As air-traffic has expanded by double digits, more aircraft have taken to the skies. Concurrently, the challenge of routing these aircraft, managing air-traffic flows and ensuring the system functions smoothly have compounded.

From 2010 to 2019, the number of air-traffic-movements over the Indian skies doubled from 1.36 million to 2.60 million. And as fuel and emissions became critical points of competitiveness and as technology grew exponentially, there was a push by several stakeholders to optimise the use of the airspace.

That is, all flights want the most direct paths to their destination. One method of doing this was allowing the use of restricted air-routes for civilian fights subject to safeguards. Termed as: flexible use of airspace or FUA.

The challenge of flexible use of airspace is the coordination amongst diverse stakeholders. These include the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Indian Air Force (IAF), Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Airports Authority of India (AAI) and also Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Each organization has a different priority and varied mission profiles. Coordinating all of these functions towards a cohesive and collaborative shared use of a national strategic resource, namely airspace, is challenging to say the least.

As early as 2012, there was discussion between the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Civil Aviation for flexible use of airspace (FUA). The implementation was to be subject to safeguards given the national security implications.

To this end the National High Level Airspace Policy Board was formalized in 2013. The boards mandate was to establish procedures for allocation of airspace and develop a manual on the flexible use of airspace. The manual was published in August 2014. The full implementation is likely to now see light of day.
17/05/20 Satyendra Pandey/
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