A few weeks ago NATS launched a new report from Oxford Economics, on the economic benefits of improvements to Middle East air traffic control.

More than 500 people from all over the world took part in the debate, both as part of our live-stream and on social media.  It was many more than we expected and I am delighted we attracted such wide interest.

We received a large number of questions, and we ran out of time on the day to answer them all, so I’ll address some of them here.

If you haven’t watched the launch event you can view the on-demand version here: Economic benefits of improvements to Middle East Air Traffic Control.

Do you think the progress that has been made to date in terms of air traffic control is sufficient?

Some excellent work has already been done, but more is needed if the aviation industry – and by implication the wider economy – is to continue to be successful.

The region’s exponential growth over the past 10 years has brought great success and prosperity. It means the region has an aircraft fleet and ground based infrastructure that is the envy of the world. However the pace of that growth has brought challenges as well as opportunities.

We’ve seen that those working hard to manage the region’s airspace have to compete for investment with more tangible, more easily understood elements of the industry, such as aircraft and airports. Oxford Economics show that if we don’t nurture, support and enhance the work that is already being done to improve air traffic control, the region’s economy could miss out on over US$16 billion over the next 10 years.

What does ‘improved air traffic control’ entail – installation of new air traffic control towers and systems, releasing airspace for passenger traffic, etc?

We believe there is a need for three-pronged investment in the future of ATC in the region. Technology needs to go hand in hand with institutional and operational reform to really see sustained and meaningful improvement.

That includes more flexible use of airspace; almost 50% of the region’s airspace is reserved for the military. Huge benefits could be realised from greater flexibility if civil aircraft could use that airspace when the Military aren’t using it.. The military have an important national security and defence role, and need to  to train to ensure operational readiness; flexible use of airspace concepts can safeguard the military “operational mission”, while enabling an efficient civilian “business mission.” It is a sovereign state choice as to how it wishes to exploit its airspace as a national resource.

There is also a need to explore different models for service provision where keeping it separate from safety regulation would foster greater transparency and customer focus.

Some excellent work has already been done, but more is needed.

Where does NATS see it adding value given the research done?

We have a long track record of service excellence and capability managing the UK’s busy and complex airspace innovatively, safely and efficiently, and great experience of working in partnership with neighbours and industry innovators, which we believe can help the region realise greater benefits.

We can share our experience, for example FerroNATS, our joint venture with Ferroser in Spain, has seen us win the air traffic services contracts at nine airport towers, employing an entirely local workforce and increasing the safety and efficiency of the operation whilst reducing the costs to the government by 50%.

At Heathrow, we have recently deployed ‘Intelligent Approach’, a technology innovation based on data-driven insights which has increased the airport’s resilience by separating arrivals by time rather than distance, and Strategic Airport Capacity Management, which by supporting airports to model their operation has created an additional slot.

And we have experience working with partners to develop operational change based on customer need, not regulation. For example our Cross Border Arrivals Management (XMAN) programme and flexible use of airspace with the military benefits our customers.

NATS doesn’t have all the answers but our experience can help. We believe the region can learn from examples from all over the world, both what to do and what not to do.

Why did the report focus mainly on Oman and Qatar when UAE and KSA have the largest passenger and cargo traffic in the region?

The report focuses on the entire Gulf region, so the UAE and KSA are certainly a big part of that. However, we decided to take a closer look at both Qatar and Oman because they are two countries where NATS has worked over a number of years and we have a close understanding of the industry. Also, there have already been numerous studies on the contribution of aviation to the GDP of the UAE, so Qatar and Oman were natural choices as adjacent countries to broaden the availability of data to support this important debate. Over time we may well look to add specific reports for other countries as well.

The additional detail simply highlights the impact at a national level, of inefficiencies within the regional system.

A lot of people asking whether the region needs A GULFCONTROL, what’s your opinion on that John?

The concept of a Gulfcontrol is an interesting one, but it wouldn’t be a silver bullet for the region’s issues and should be seen more as a change in mindset than a single place or organisation. The idea of wider coordination and operational collaboration is absolutely right, but that doesn’t necessarily require a single organisation or facility from which ATC for the entire region is run. What is important is achieving the institutional, technological and operational reforms, and creating the necessary umbrella processes which facilitate greater cooperation, and alignment of national and regional objectives.

Is there the political will in the region to optimise the use of the airspace?

I believe that political will in the region is growing but the debate needs to be elevated to one based on the economics rather than simply the operational case. That is why we commissioned Oxford Economics to undertake this report, which highlights clear economic benefits of investment in air traffic control systems, particularly at a time of deflated oil prices, and subsequent pressure on national budgets across the region.

When the region comes together and chooses to act, as it did with oil pipelines and more recently with rail projects, then it leads the world. Now is the time to do the same for the invisible infrastructure. Increased collaboration between civil aviation authorities and the private sector will go a long way to help deliver these benefits.

Where can I go to get a copy of the report?

You can pick up a copy of the report by visiting stand 6032 at ATC Global in Dubai until 7th October where NATS will be showcasing a wide range of digital technologies and our latest solutions including how we’ve been supporting customers to enhance airport resilience and capacity. Alternatively, visit our website for a downloadable copy of the report.


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