DOHA — As airlines gather in Doha this week at the IATA Annual General Meeting, the topic of infrastructure investment has been raised several times.
It is one of the most significant factors in the ability for airlines to operate around the globe and yet it is also something which they have no control over. Airlines are dependent on governments around the globe to maintain air traffic control services, for example, or on a mix of public and private operators of airports to ensure that passengers are cared for prior to and after their flights. And in every corner of the world the airlines are struggling to realize the level of cooperation and services they need to operate reliably.
Even as the industry celebrates the opening of the new Hamad International Airport in the host city of Doha, it is clear that aviation infrastructure in the region is struggling to handle the explosive levels of growth it has seen in recent years. Yes, the new terminals are great, but the ATC operations in the area are fragmented. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Bakar noted that his airline frequently faces delays because its ability to dispatch flights through nearby airspace en route to North America, Europe or Asia.
There are times at peaks where we have to hold planes for five minutes between departures. Either there is an issue over the Iraqi FIR or there are issues with Omani FIR. This all boils down to not proper air traffic management…. We should be able to do this especially because we are such closely knit countries in the GCC. It requires strong political will to do it.
With each government managing its airspace independently rather than the countries in the region working together, similar to how Europe developed its Eurocontrol operations, conflicts within the airspace remain a challenge. On top of this, the region sees a highly disproportionate level of military traffic – roughly 40% – which further limits the ability for commercial airlines to operate smoothly.
In the United States the main concern remains delays in building out the NextGen infrastructure. Budget cuts and delays continue to plague the very necessary upgrade to air traffic control services in the USA. And, while many airport terminals are not considered luxurious, they generally are sufficient to handle passenger needs.
Airport construction is a hot topic in Asia and Latin America as the booming growth in passenger numbers demand more facilities. In many cases the governments are establishing public-private partnerships to build and operate these airports. IATA remains concerned that these partnerships are flawed far too often and result in projects which are ultimately financially unsound. That means higher costs for the airlines operating in those airports and, ultimately, higher costs to passengers as well.
The IATA sessions ended without much in the way of concrete plans to address these challenges. Bakar’s comment during the press briefing was the closest thing to an action statement made and that was far short of a commitment to press forward. Of course, with so many different government entities involved it is no surprise that progress is slow.