ALL PACIFIC AIR SPACE MAY BE CONTROLLED FROM NADI, FIJI

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 8, 1999 - AFP/Pacific Islands Monthly)---Pacific nations are on the verge of taking a radical aviation decision and one which is exciting industry attention around the world.

If clearance for take-off is given, all Pacific airspace over millions of square miles will be controlled from just one site -- probably Nadi in Fiji -- creating the world’s biggest seamless air traffic control system.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) will present a draft concept plan to South Pacific Forum officials later this month, with the final report to follow in March.

Then, in May, Forum civil aviation ministers will discuss the proposal and, if accepted, will adopt what one IATA official told Pacific Islands Monthly (PIM) would be "the ultimate air traffic control dream -- the template for the rest of the world."

If the Pacific bites the bullet, Africa and Central Asia could follow the lead.

Success at this could also restore faith in the South Pacific Forum, an organization currently given to pressing world economy agendas on hard-pressed states. A Forum unified airspace would be a proposition equal to the Forum Shipping Line or the Forum Fisheries Agency.

Airlines welcome the proposition as bringing air traffic control to the level of sophistication that their planes already have. "We are reasonably optimistic that it will happen. The decision has already really been taken," Association of South Pacific Airlines (ASPA) Secretary General George Faktaufon told Pacific Islands Monthly.

The alternatives were unacceptable, with each Pacific state claiming the right to charge individually for its upper airspace. Both the Cook Islands and Nauru have previously considered this and Faktaufon said it would have been a major problem for airlines.

At the center of the proposal is the upper air space, defined as anything above 7,431 meters (24,500 feet) which used to be as high as turbo prop aircraft could reach. Movement through the Flight Information Regions (FIR) is controlled in the Pacific by centers in Oakland (California), Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and French Polynesia. Already there is some cross-fertilization; the upper airspace over New Caledonia and American Samoa is the responsibility of Nadi, while the Solomon Islands has just signed a temporary contract for control of its upper air space with Airservices Australia using their powerful new Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS).

Pacific states are facing the prospect of major new investments in Communications, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) as old fashioned ground systems try to catch up with sophisticated airlines which are plugged into satellites.

For airlines flying the Pacific or to Asia the multiple FIRs create inefficiencies and greater costs. They also tend to reflect the lowest common denominator in technology which, paradoxically, continues in effect in Oakland, where controllers still control flights in the Oceanic region by writing on bits of paper and passing them around.

In May last year, Forum aviation officials adopted an action plan which recognized new technologies, presenting "opportunities for considerable efficiencies in airplane operations, with potential flow-on benefits to Forum member economies."

They called for Pacific airspace to be managed "cooperatively, efficiently, and safely as a unified airspace" and called on IATA to report on the concept. In the meantime, the ministers agreed to a moratorium on the acquisition of further CNS/ATM facilities.

Orient Aviation, produced by the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines, in its December issue paints the proposal as a watershed decision with Pacific Island nations reclaiming control of their airspace.

They focused on the way the proposal, if carried out, would slash into the authority of the U.S. Oceanic Center at Oakland which, due to cost cutting, is using almost ancient technology to run its operation. The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is known to be unhappy with the proposal, not only for the loss of Pacific influence but because it will cause the loss of jobs and revenue. An FAA official is serving on the IATA review.

The Pacific operation would take Micronesia, including Guam, out of Oakland and into the new regional operation. Unclear at this point is the attitude of France, which has a FIR center in French Polynesia.

The director of the French Polynesian FIR, Guy Yeung, told PIM that they were not in the process of integrating their operation into a new Pacific service.

"We have not made a decision on the future of the FIR," he said. However, the French decision is more political than technical and will be made in Paris, rather than in Papeete."

For airlines, the gains would be in uniform charging, improved operational efficiency, and profitability. Because of the problems with Oakland, for example, aircraft flying from the U.S. to Australia, New Zealand or Fiji need to have 10 minutes minimum separation between them. But with satellite geostationary position systems, aircraft accurately know where they are and can have tighter separation.

Last year the U.S. tried to get airlines to pay for going through their Oceanic Airspace, even though the airlines were not even flying to the U.S. This affected airlines flying between China-Japan and Australia-New Zealand-Fiji.

Under the new proposal, airlines would still have to pay user fees, but the money would go into the region, rather than the U.S. If the Forum annual meeting in Palau later this year adopts the plan, the battle would be on among likely suppliers.

New Zealand’s Airways Corporation is believed to be active in touting its system. State owned Airservices Australia is promoting its TAAATS operation, that by the end of the year will run Australia’s air traffic control from one center.

Both the Australian and New Zealand systems are built around French hardware. In theory, Airservices spokesman Richard Dudley agreed, TAAATS could easily handle the entire South Pacific too.

But they needed to be sensitive to the needs of Pacific states which would want to be involved in some way in the operation, although the proposal does not effect the lower airspace which is still controlled by individual states.

While Airservices has not put up a formal proposition to the Forum, they did make a submission to last year’s Civil Aviation Minister's meeting. From this, it appears likely that should a unified system be set up, it would go into Nadi.

In January, in an unrelated move but with implications for any new system, Nadi and Airservices successfully tested a new computer data air traffic control exchange trial that showed it was possible to safely send information in real time via computer.

Dudley said they had a high degree of confidence in TAAATS and believed it would be ideal for a Pacific ATM. What will attract Pacific states, too, is that any new system would be relatively cheap to install, although IATA is believed to be very concerned at the high cost of state controlled monopoly telecommunications in the Pacific. This radically affects the economics of any unified system that is dependent on telecoms.

ASPA’s Faktaufon said the airlines had no particular preference for an ATM system provided it was proven and recognized. They would also want some kind of political and commercial instrument which would avoid monopoly control over flight information Pacific wide.

A unified system would be cheaper for the airlines and would produce surplus revenue in the region to enhance air travel and communications. The decision by aviation ministers last year was the signal the unified system was going to happen and as far as Faktaufon was concerned, the only uncertainty was whether the individual states will have to ratify it.

Michael J Field, Agence France-Presse, Auckland, New Zealand Tel: (64 21) 688-438; Fax: (64 21) 694-035; E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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