Thursday, December 10, 2015

Keep bird's-eye view of airspace issues

10 Dec 2015

Misperceptions of flight turbulence are exemplified by the common synonym "air pockets", which is misleading because pockets or spaces without air do not exist in nature; the bumps are in reality the result of varying airflow. In a somewhat similar way, there is misunderstanding of the airspaces managed by a country, called flight information regions (FIR). Such management is not a form of control that undermines the sovereignty of another nation. It is in fact the provision of services by a designated country - a flight information service and an alerting service.

Aircraft could scarcely travel efficiently and safely without the presence of seamless, standardised and technically sound services within the different flight regions that every bit of the atmosphere has been divided into. This was brought about by global agreement, facilitated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Such arrangements have been accepted by nations for decades. Yet misconceptions still persist over FIRs, as reflected by the political turbulence created over Singapore's management of flights over some areas in Riau since 1946 - airspace allocated to it by the ICAO with the agreement of Indonesia. Sovereignty simply does not come into the picture, as Indonesian leaders too have acknowledged of late. Indeed, the extent of Indonesia's own FIR overlaps Timor Leste's territorial airspace. That is a feature common in various parts of the world, as it would be utterly dysfunctional to strictly align FIRs with national boundaries. All works well within Singapore's FIR. But, alas, when nationalist sentiments are stirred, FIR issues are conflated with cross-border irritants and false assumptions, leading to calls for change.

What is recognised in Singapore is that Southeast Asia's largest nation also has a broad aviation development vision and is seeking to build up home-grown technical proficiency to better manage the FIRs across its territory. That is only natural for a country aspiring to progress to a higher level of overall national development. Indonesian leaders have indicated a time frame of three or four years to improve the skills of aviation personnel and upgrade air traffic control equipment. This is necessary before any formal proposals for change are tabled. The next step should involve discussions with neighbouring countries, like Malaysia and Singapore, and the ICAO. It is crucial to address technical and operational matters to ensure that the flow of air traffic across the region is managed smoothly, efficiently and safely.

A coordinated approach to airspace management will not just maintain international confidence in the standards and common imperatives of regional aviation authorities, but will also lend credence to Asean's commitment to open up its skies and not be seized by boundaries.

[What Singapore needs to do whenever Indonesia raise this, is to point out that this is not a bilateral Indonesia-Singapore issue, but is an arrangement by the ICAO.

What would be interesting is what if Indonesia rejects ICAO arrangement and insist on "taking over" the FIR over their airspace? Can they? What would happen is commercial flights flying over Riau would contact SG Air Traffic Controllers. What then? Would the Indonesia ATC interject? Insist that pilots submit to their supervision? Give confusing or contradictory instructions? What if the pilots refuse to acknowledge the "authority" of the IN ATC? The pilots and airlines can fall back on the ICAO decision and effectively ignore the maverick action of IN ATC. 

Actually, I have no idea what the Indonesians might do. What with crocodiles guarding prisons and elephants putting out forest fires, and monkeys running their government, I fully expect them to have birds running their FIR.]

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