Mid-air collision: India`s tangled airspace - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 9 February 2007

Mid-air collision: India`s tangled airspace

by Ajai Shukla
(Business Standard: 01 Feb 2007)

At Hyderabad airport, you buckle into your seat for the late afternoon flight back to Delhi. It’s been a hectic day; you flew out at dawn, attended the morning meeting in Hyderabad and had a useful working lunch, but you’ll be home before the children’s bedtime. The flight indicator tells you that Delhi is due north; it’ll be a straight flight, you believe, no time lost. You offer up silent thanks for India’s revolution in civil aviation.

Wrong! In the cockpit, the pilot has set course south instead of north towards Delhi. Flying in wide circles south of Hyderabad, he climbs to 20,000 feet before seemingly heading for Goa. Ninety kilometres later he will bank towards Pune, covering another 100 km before finally heading for Delhi.

These inefficient diversions of civil flights at Hyderabad are caused because the airport is bordered by a vast swathe of restricted Indian Air Force (IAF) airspace belonging to the IAF flying academies of Hakimpeth and Bidar. By the time you reach Delhi you will have flown an extra 20 minutes, and the airline will have spent Rs 40,000 in extra fuel costs. This wastage of time, fuel and, inevitably, money is eventually borne by the traveller.

The problem is not confined to Hyderabad. Almost half of India’s airspace belongs to the military. The country is dotted with IAF fighter, helicopter and transport bases, training facilities, manufacturing units and design establishments. Each of them was allotted thousands of square kilometres of surrounding airspace at a time when civil flights were few and far between. Today, in a civil aviation boom, hundreds of passenger aircraft zigzag everyday around a plethora of no-go areas.

Civil aviation officials have not been able to persuade the IAF to loosen airspace restrictions despite dramatically changed circumstances. Says Ajay Prasad, Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), “The problem was not coming into sharp focus as it is today. Now with this expanding fleet, opening new routes, bringing new cities into the air map, the need for opening up the airspace has become much more… It will cut short distances, it will save flying time because instead of making detours you could fly in more of a straight line.”

The Airports Authority of India (AAI), responsible for air traffic management around civil airports and civilian air routes, has been working with the IAF route by route, in an attempt to straighten domestic and international air routes. Under pressure from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) the IAF agreed to straighten seven international routes, but it has not allowed a single domestic flight to fly unencumbered through its vast airspace holdings. Says AAI Chairman, K Ramalingam, “We would like the Air Force to be more pro-active on restructuring air routes…. we have urged them to release the airspace to us when they are not using it.”

The IAF explains that it has several reasons for such restrictions. Without separate airspace, its highly agile aircraft, with flight patterns of rapid, unexpected climbs and manoeuvres, would be a serious hazard to civil airliners in the vicinity. In several cases the IAF has allowed civil flights to use its airspace provided they remain above 20,000 feet, the ceiling for fighter and helicopter flying. 

But dividing airspace by altitude doesn’t solve the problem. In cases like Hyderabad, Bangalore and even Delhi, the IAF’s airspace is so close to the airport that civil flights enter it before they can climb to 20,000 feet. Civil aviation authorities have come up with a proposal for “flexible use of airspace”, in which the IAF would freely allow civil flights into its restricted airspace when IAF aircraft are not actually using it. For example, a Mumbai-Indore flight, which today flies an extra 100 km to bypass the airspace of the Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) facility near Nashik (that produces and test-flies MiG aircraft) would fly straight over it, provided no MiGs are being test-flown at the same time.

Civil Aviation Secretary, Ajay Prasad, who has included this concept in the Draft Civil Aviation Policy to be released shortly explains, “There is an area that is earmarked for defence and if, at some point, some hours of the day, or some periods of the week if air force doesn’t need that airspace, it should become available to civilian traffic.”

Top IAF officers, however, dismiss the idea of “time-sharing”. The air force believes that civil authorities should manage airspace better, like in the UK where the Royal Air Force, a huge airline industry, private aircraft and even balloons and gliders effectively share a comparatively tiny airspace. Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi, Chief of Air Staff, tells Business Standard that the solution lies in technology, like better radars: “If every aircraft knows where the others are, we shall have solved the problem of wasteful flying. You could do time-sharing for now, till better technology allows you to deal with all the aircraft simultaneously.”

But specialist opinion is ranged against this viewpoint. A series of expert committees on airspace issues, such as the Roy Paul Committee, the Khola Committee and, most recently, the Naresh Chandra Committee in October 2004, have pushed for flexible use of airspace. The Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations include:

· All “Reserved Airspace” should revert back to civil ATC whenever there is no substantial requirement for military activity.
· Airspace above a certain height, which is not required for military purposes, should be made available to civil ATC on a permanent basis.
· Domestic routes should be restructured to fly directly through reserved airspace, reducing flying time and saving fuel.
· Restrictions on civil flights due to multiple military establishments near Hyderabad airport should be relaxed, to facilitate direct civil flights and reduce flying time and fuel consumption.
· Air Force exercises at busy airports like Mumbai and Delhi should be reduced or avoided, to minimise the large-scale disruption of civil flights.

The IAF’s reaction to these recommendations mirrors the polarisation on airspace issues between civil aviation and air force officers. Senior IAF officers dismiss the recommendations, asking why the Naresh Chandra Committee does not include an IAF representative.

The IAF, responsible for India’s air defence, sees unrestricted airspace less as a civil aviation opportunity than as a possible playground for anti-national activities (such as the 1995 incident in which a Latvian civil aircraft airdropped arms in Purulia). Far from vacating airspace for civil aviation, the IAF is moving towards monitoring every flying object in India. It has divided Indian airspace into five geographical divisions called Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs), recently also adding a sub-ADIZ over the island territories of Andaman and Nicobar. In November, the MoCA reached an agreement with the IAF on a procedure to monitor every civil flight as it transits from one ADIZ to another.

But it will be an ongoing process of negotiation, with new issues arising even as old ones are resolved. Hyderabad’s new international airport being built at Shamshabad, 12 km from IAF training establishments at Bidar and Hakimpeth, was supposed to ease operational friction. But now, with new Hawk trainer aircraft being introduced in Bidar, the IAF has asked for its airspace to be extended towards Shamshabad. The AAI has flatly turned that down.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Sector Extra flying Extra time Extra cost (A-320)
Srinagar – Delhi 150 km 12-15 mins Rs 20,000 - 25,000
Mumbai – Hyderabad 160 km 13-16 mins Rs 21,000 – 26,000
Indore – Mumbai 100 km 8-10 mins Rs 12,000 – 14,000


Prohibited areas: in which no aircraft are allowed, eg over nuclear installations, Bhakra Nangal Dam, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament etc.

Danger areas: in which coordination is required because there are activities that can endanger flying aircraft, eg firing etc.

Restricted areas: IAF owned areas in which aircraft can move but with IAF coordination.

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