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In the previous article, it was mentioned that the strategic target of 330 million passengers announced by the GACA President will face two challenges. The first challenge was related to the capacity of airports’ terminals.
The second challenge is related to the air traffic management (ATM) capacity to handle the increased flight movements. Saudi Air Navigation Services provides air traffic control services (ATC) which is one of the ATM functions. The objective of ATC services is to ensure aircraft safety and reduce delays and expedite the climb and descent of aircraft from/into the airports. The service is provided by subunits of ATC; tower, approach (terminal) and area control centre according to the distance and altitude. Without ATC services, aircraft will be stopped from flying and aviation as a system will be pillarized. The ATC services are provided by air traffic controllers (ATCOs) who received professional training of duration ranges from 2-3 years. In fact, the Saudi ATCOs are very professional in providing ATC services globally. SANS won two global prices related to safety performance (2021) and airspace management (year2022).
The strategic target of passenger numbers, when achieved, will cause the flight movements to be higher than three times today’s flight movement. This means the ATC service demand will exceed the capacity at some point in future which directs SANS to expand the ATC capacity. There are two dimensions of capacity related to the ATM; runway capacity and airspace capacity. Both could impact the flights’ safety and efficiency if not managed safely.
SANS was ranked number two globally in aerospace management, which means that SANA has high-quality professionals acting strategically and operationally. The current structure of Saudi Airspace consists of two area control centres located in Jeddah and Riyadh, providing ATC services for arrival, departure, and cross-country flights. Each centre has multiple sectors responsible for a specific area. Each sector has a specific capacity. Each centre has limited workstations which are designed to the current demand.
It is well-known that even the best ATCO will start losing control (losing the picture) when the demand exceeds the capacity at some point. Knowing that, SANS attempted to implement Air Traffic Flow (ATFM) which is a great tool strategically to optimise the airspace capacity in a safe manner, but the implementation didn’t see the light due to disagreement from some of the neighbouring countries. SANS should try again to implement ATFM, which is a MUST project to do. Another option for SANS is to restructure/redesign the airspace internally according to the flow of air traffic and its volume of it by modifying, adding, or eliminating sectors. Coupled with this, SANS must provide intensive training through simulators containing Riyadh and Jeddah areas of responsibility for the current ATCOs, with exercises containing flights higher than usual to get ATCOs used for the increased demand. In addition, SANS operation may set a stand-by crew to provide additional support to the crews if needed.
The last point is related to the number of ATCOs; ATC is a well-known occupation that has a short life due to the stressful nature of the job and the health requirements set by the regulator. With the increased demand, SANS should activate new ATC candidates training that ends with the recruitment process with the consideration to implement a strict selection process knowing that ATCOs need 2-3 years of training to be qualified to work alone.
The runway is the area assigned for departure and landing where one aircraft is only allowed to depart or land when the runway is clear of another aircraft, vehicle and individuals. ATCOs use various techniques to sequence the arrival flights (sending them to the holding point or vectoring them to fly longer as a delays actions) to obtain the standard separation according to the operating procedures set by the unit. Although both techniques are acceptable practices, the airlines lose resources in terms of time and fuel. The longer the aircraft flies, the higher cost the airlines pay. For the departure aircraft, there is a time requirement to separate them depending on the category of the departing aircraft and the direction.
SANS should adopt the minimum separation requirements (3 miles horizontally) by satisfying all the ICAO requirements with proper ATCOs training for the new separation procedure. Furthermore, SANS should implement automated ATM tools that help ATCOs perform their duties safely and efficiently. A good example is the arrival manager (AMAN), which is an advanced tool supporting the controller by providing real-time information on the optimum landing sequence for arrival aircraft. Another example is the Target Start-Up Approval Time (TSAT) which is a tool that provides each aircraft the optimal time to start its engines and commence pushback for departure, which will reduce the delays and improve the sequence for departure. Such tools are used by NATS, which is one of the leading air navigation services providers. Paris Charles de Gaulle airport uses a dynamic departure indicator (DDI) tool, which allows ATCOS to implement departure separations and applicable spacing constraints between departure aircraft. DDI works by computing distance and time-spacing measures and supports ATCOs to safely and accurately provide the needed minimum time or distance spacing between departing aircraft.