In what could be the first concrete step towards joint management of the country’s airspace by civilian and defence authorities, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) have agreed to launch a pilot project to see if they can manage air traffic together.
The two authorities will, within a month, start jointly controlling all aircraft flying over the southern peninsula by bringing their air traffic controllers together under one roof. The move comes after several rounds of discussions over many years between the civil aviation and defence ministries and could result in opening up of more of currently restricted airspace, leading to more civilian flights.
Currently, 35% Indian airspace is reserved for the defence forces and designated under three heads—prohibited, restricted and dangerous. So, for example, the area of one nautical mile, centred on Malabar Hills in Mumbai, which contains residence of the state chief minister and the state governor, is considered prohibited and aircraft are not permitted to fly over. Similarly, airspace falling above firing ranges such as the Mahajan Range near Hisar, Haryana, is labelled dangerous.
The last of these, the restricted areas, are mostly meant for defence activities such as the Hindon Air Force Base, located north-east of New Delhi that is open for flights during certain stipulated hours of the day. Hindon space was opened up only this year for civilian flights.
The civil aviation sector, which is growing at 40% annually, has pressed for opening up of more such restricted areas. Leading proponents of such a move have included Vijay Mallya, who heads the UB Group that runs Kingfisher Airlines and also has a majority stake in the country’s largest low-cost carrier Air Deccan.
If more restricted space is opened up, it could result in commercial airlines shortening their routes, which translates into fuel saving and a higher turnaround of planes. For example, flying time between New Delhi and Mumbai that takes 1.55 minutes now on an Airbus A320 aircraft, could be reduced by about 15-20 minutes on average, if the flight didn’t have to follow restrictions in states such as Rajasthan which fall in the way. The reduced time could also allow airlines to have more flights.
“We have finally been able to unveil a plan of flexi-use of airspace,” confirmed a senior civil aviation ministry official familiar with the process, who did not want to be named. According to the plan, AAI and IAF air traffic controllers will co-locate in the same premises, sharing information, for starters, on the Chennai flight information region (FIR), which includes most of the southern states and the oceanic airspace around it.
The joint control of air traffic both civilian (domestic as well as international) and defence aircraft will gradually be expanded to other regions. Guwahati, Kolkata, Delhi and eventually Mumbai, in that order, will be the other regions to adopt a similar structures. But expanding the joint control model to other regions will depend on the success of the experiment in the Chennai FIR, this official said.
Air congestion could also be reduced for international airlines flying over Indian airspace from South-East Asia airlines to Europe. Currently, they fly certain specified air routes over New Delhi as most of northern India is restricted space for them and, in the process, can get slowed down before heading into Pakistan airspace and beyond.
“When you can choose your path, it is much more viable,” said NokAir CEO Patee Sarasin . “Asian countries in general are opening up to each other much more.”
Air traffic service in India is provided separately by the civil and military authorities under one of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s three models for airspace management, termed “side-by-side” operations.
Most developed countries, including all of the European Union countries, have shifted to a more flexible management model, which allows for a common service controlled by one single air traffic control with airspace allocation for civilian or defence usage based on actual need and usage.