Sunday, June 23, 2024

Safe Sky & Sustainable Future

GS Bawa

Gurmukh Singh Bawa, former General Manager, Airports Authority of India

At the outset, let me flag that I am writing this article in the “Year of Facilitation” that has consequently been announced by the ICAO Council, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Annex-9.  Further, the Secretary-General, ICAO encouraged the Member States to join ICAO in its advocacy for the ratification and effective implementation of international air treaties. He offered a special focus on the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention); noting its 80th anniversary this year; and this was echoed when over 750 delegates representing 78 States were attending the ‘2024 ICAO Legal Seminar’ at Seoul, from 16-18 April 2024. UNDP has been drawing attention to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) with the local representatives in the war zones. Overall, the result of these has heightened the hopes of a possible truce in Gaza (Hamas-Israel conflict).

First things first; War no longer benefits anyone and Safety is a top priority in aviation and one of ICAO’s core strategic objectives. Because of international cooperation by governments and industry groups, with the support of ICAO, commercial aircraft have become the safest way to travel.  Decoupling of civil aviation from military aviation, the civil aviation industry has led to more disbenefit and discomfort to the civil aviation sector.  Since the beginning of modern aviation say 1903, when The Wright Flyer came into being, or 1783 the Hot Air Ballon era; the military and warfare have given a boost to the development, rather rapid development in aviation technology, in general, and airframe development, in particular.  Not going further, into the growth and development of aviation, I wish to draw attention to the core element of the Flight, i.e. the SKY.  Sky has always been taken as ‘Safe’ and ‘Free of Limitations’.  The infinite sky had given rise to the flight of mankind and countries and even found aviation as the most effective and powerful way to deal with their enemies.  Aviation has been used as a catalyst, for both, the Defence Power as well as the Commercial Power, by the respective stakeholders.  The latter gave birth to the growth and development of the modern-day commercial aviation industry. 

The twist, in de-coupling military aviation from civil aviation happened, somewhere between 1970 and 1990.  Subsequently, there has been a sort of China Wall between the two segments of the same industry.  Both grew alone but flew in the same sky with virtual separations.  The Seesaw-Dogma, that the aviation industry today face is – “Wars may increase the revenues for the production of military aircraft, but it negatively affects the civil aviation segment.”, which at times has common or overlapping stakeholders. The ongoing Ukraine-Russia War is a clear example of this and the loss of the Antonov-AN-225 MRIYA is an irreparable loss of the global aviation fraternity, not of a particular nation.   Not only this, as of date we are facing multiple war zones on the Globe and it has the potential to spill over further, if not curbed.  We have already experienced the impact of a complete shut-down of aviation industry during the recent Covid-19 pandemic times. 

Coming to ‘Closure of Skies’ for aviation activities; Per say, for Pilots, the closure of airspace is a common phenomenon and NOTAMs are issued for the Airspace Closures; but that is due to technical or other reasons.  In this paper, I am referring to the Closure of Air Space due to War Zones that make it unsafe and un-economical; e.g. Niger’s airspace and airports were closed to all flights on July 26, 2023, Sudan’s airspace is closed to all civilian flights since April 2023, Libya’s airspace is closed since the civil war began at 2014, etc. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been ongoing since 2014. With a major escalation seen on February 24, 2022, the consequences of the conflicts have led to wider global impacts in numerous areas; i.e., service providers’ prices have risen significantly worldwide, notably for oil and natural gas too.  The availability of metals such as titanium has hit the manufacturing and availability of aircraft. Disruptions and Diversions of Air Traffic is one such factor that touches the masses and makes a hue & cry, worldwide, as the aviation industry is significant in global transportation, connecting people and goods worldwide. 

Further, as per the IATA Factsheet of 25 March 2022, 36 countries, including EU countries, the UK and the US, have closed their airspace to Russian airlines. Russia has in turn banned airlines in most of those countries from entering or flying over Russia. The directly related airspace includes about 17,879,000 square kilometers of Russian airspace and 674,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian airspace. Before the conflict, nearly half of the polar airlines were flying through the airspace for their shortest path, which is called the Great Circle Route.

The Great Circle Route – the shortest distance between two points on a globe is not always a straight line – it is an arc called the ‘Great Circle.’.   Pilots, while flying, keep adjusting their course to stay on the arc.  For example; the Great Circle route tells us that the shortest distance from Dublin to New York is not across the transatlantic ocean, but rather crossing Greenland at varying angles. This is why flights do not fly across the Atlantic Ocean when flying from Europe to the US/Canada. Flying over Greenland saves airline companies a large amount of fuel and saves passengers a substantial amount of time. Thereby, making it a win-win situation for all.

Continuing with economic impact, several airlines from different countries not directly impacted by sanctions have temporarily reduced flights to and from Russia, e.g., Japan and South Korea. In 2021, International Traffic between Russia and the rest of the world accounted for 5.2% of global international traffic, and only 1.3% of global total traffic. International air traffic to and from Russia accounted for 5.7% of total European traffic in 2021.  The Ukrainian airspace is closed, putting a halt to the movements by air of roughly 3.3% of total air passenger traffic in Europe, and 0.8% of total traffic globally, as per 2021 statistics.  While the complexity of international air transportation and the severe effects of COVID-19 and the subsequent recovery make it hard to quantitatively assess the direct impact of War-Zone related closures of airspace; few preliminary researches have been done, and the results are just indicative of the impact and trend.

Flight cancellations and shutting down of operations by airlines in war zones have become another new normal.  As per the Journal of Air Transport Management, March 2024 (V115), On the commercial front, estimates indicate that apart from detrimental growth it has already raised cost of the air travel by 0.637% in total.  Further, 6.23% of all international flights have to endure an average detour of 13.32 %.  The additional impact is in the form of interruption of air traffic, evacuation of civilians, and safety & Security. Incidents, such as the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 and flight PS752 departing Tehran/Iran in 2020; makes clear that many risk assessment methods currently applied by States and Airlines tend to underestimate the risks when a new conflict is developing, or when an existing conflict is intensifying.   

ICAO defines the Conflict Zones — Airspace over areas where armed conflict is occurring or is likely to occur between militarized parties, and is also taken to include airspace over areas where such parties are in a heightened state of military alert or tension, which might endanger civil aircraft.  As per CZIB, the Conflict Zone Information Bulletin) the active Conflict Zones are from FIRs in countries such as South Sudan, Mali, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Russia.  ICAO conducts High-Level Safety Conferences and even issues Press Releases on Conflict Zones from its Newsroom.

Due to the dynamic political situation across the world, conflict zones persist and change, sometimes suddenly and/or unpredictably, exposing civil aviation to the risk of collateral damage or targeted attack. According to ICAO regulations, it is the responsibility of Member States to close any airspace over their territory in which the safety and security of air traffic cannot be guaranteed. It is a fact that, in case of a major military conflict the passenger planes try to avoid the war zone but it’s not always possible; also, if they simply ignore any conflict anywhere there wouldn’t be much airspace to fly in.  Further; terrorist conflicts may occur in any State at any time and pose risks to civil aviation. This is why it’s important for governments, aircraft operators, and other airspace users such as air navigation service providers (ANSPs), to work together to share the most up-to-date conflict zone risk-based information possible to assure the safety of civilian flights and to ensure risk mitigation.   And CZIB is one such platform that shares information about conflict zones.

Coming back to economic impact; industry estimates indicate the stoppage of nearly 4.32% of the global international airlines due to pandemic and conflict zones.  The closure of airspace is one of the direct impact concerns for aviation activities; and commercial planes are affected by detours due to factors such as technical, natural, geographical, social and economic in nature but those due to the war zone fall in the category of Avoidable Closures or Man-Made Conflict Zones.

Government has advised and continues to advise airlines to assess the situation and act accordingly.  Airlines have two options, i.e., to take a long route, say by an additional half an hour or so, or to stop operations (cancel flights). 

In flying, the final responsibility for the actual routing always lies with the Commander, who is responsible for the safety and security of passengers, crew, and aircraft; his decision is based on the flight crews’ assessment of the information provided by the State and the Airline or other sources.  For flying safely into and over the warzone Commanders should be given sufficient information about the threat and the risk assessment performed to exercise their legal responsibility for the safety and security of their flight. This should include a dedicated briefing when flying over or near conflict zones.

Environmental Challenges: Aviation Industry is notorious due to its carbon emissions and ecological footprint.  Efforts are being made within the industry to reduce these emissions through various means.  The ongoing wars and the negative impact of wars, as well as the detouring of flights, are adding fuel to the fire.  Airlines are implementing active strategies like optimized flight routes, reduced taxiing time, and improved air traffic management systems to minimize fuel consumption and emissions; all these will become redundant if the war zones continue to emit negative emissions and compel airlines to detour. All other programs, such as Carbon Offset Programs, Investment in Renewable Energy, Waste Management, etc. will also become redundant. The ongoing collaborations between governments, airlines, manufacturers, and environmental organizations will become questionable and may come to rest.   This will cause further negative impact on the environment.

Summing Up; over a period, by creating enabling infrastructure, technical excellence, and international cooperation; Civil Aviation has reached a stage where it can be termed as ‘Safe & Secure Air Transpiration System’.  Countries need to retain that status to progress further and attain Sustainable Growth. Both, the Government and the industry are required to come forward and join hands for capacity building in this regard.

The slogan of ‘Safe Skies – Sustainable Future’ is coined to bring harmony in actions for achieving the requisite Skills, Knowledge and Support to each other to further enhance the Safety in the Aviation System; both, on the Ground and in the Sky.

The success lies in harnessing the decades of expertise gained and using it for continuous improvement of the vital support for the progress in ensuring the safety and sustainability of global aviation.

It is time to act and join forces to ‘Build Bridges for Sustainable Aviation’.  India as a Nation, has emerged stronger on the global front, so far as civil aviation is concerned.  India is poised to invest heavily in aviation, say looking forward to supplying two to five aircraft per month.  Moved upward in the ranking of global economic power, say from the 10th largest economy in 2014 moved to the fifth largest economy.  Further, the IMF, the World Bank and other global agencies are predicting that India is poised to attain the status of 3rd largest economy soon, say by 2027.  I have reiterated these stats to flag the point that stakes are high; and any jerk in the form of Rapid Change, when the acceleration is high can lead to premature wear to the tools, uneven cuts here and there consequently curbing the motion.   It has been amply made clear that Sustainable Development in civil aviation derives from the continuous enhancement of Safety, Security and Capacity Building in terms of Infrastructure, Technology and Training.  And we need to remain focused on this to avoid any complacency.   This shall, surely, pave the way forward for a concrete action plan for global alliances and partnerships for a more sustainable future for Safe Global Aviation.  The economic impact on GDP as a whole and the aviation industry, in terms of tourism revenue and jobs that it creates, is well recognized.

In conclusion; empowering the next generation lies in handing over to them a sustainable aviation industry.  Such an environment shall be full of innovation to consistently improve the smooth operations of airports and airlines, elevate & upgrade the passenger experience, reduction of emissions and carbon footprint, healthy investments.  Before adding new and additional infrastructure, it shall be ensured that the same is fully and optimally exploited by deploying new technology and modern machines.

Doubling of the aviation industry over the next two decades is envisaged on this pretext that it shall come from ‘I2 ‘(Innovate and Invest), this shall bring harmony between Demand-Service- Infrastructure.  The keywords for such a transformative & Safe air travel environment shall include Biometrics, Facial Recognition, Innovative Airport Terminal Design, Smart Security, Self Service, PEP (Personalization of Passenger Experience) deploying research-based Neuro Science of Consumer Behavior, Value-Based Commercialization of Non-Aero sources; and all this will be possible through effective Change Management.   

The aviation industry is poised for an exciting and transformative future. To drive sustainability in the aviation industry, technological advancements and innovative solutions, advanced air traffic management technologies, sustainable aviation fuels, AI & Robotics; and all the above are required to be pushed with more vigor and intensity.   

 Gurmukh Singh Bawa is the former General Manager, Airports Authority of India, Secretary General, the Air Travellers Association and Secretary Public Relations Society, Delhi. Currently, he writes on subjects like Airport Economics, Airport Statistics and Data Collection, Traffic Studies & Surveys and Traffic Forecasting, Commercial Aspects of Airports, Airport Marketing, Airport Non-Aero Enhancement Strategies, Corporate Communication, Organization Image Building, Public Relations, General Management, Motivation, Quality Control, Project Management, Training and Training Methodologies

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