An interview with the Director General of the Middle East Regional Air Traffic Management organisation
Considering that last year saw the winners of the baseball World Series almost imagined by the 1989 movie Back to the Future II, and the outcome of the US presidential race predicted by The Simpsons in 2000, I wondered if the challenging topic of Air Traffic Management in the Middle East deserved the same treatment. Therefore, provided the need for our industry hasn’t been removed due to self-separating aircraft and Hyperloop 1, I contemplated an interview that I, (or perhaps some more youthful and articulate holographic application of me perhaps), will conduct in the year 2045…
JS – Doctor Mohammed, firstly, thank you for taking the time to meet with me today, and share your thoughts as the first Director General of Pan Arab Air Traffic Services, as the organisation celebrates its first five years in existence.
Dr Mohammed – You’re very welcome John, the pleasure is all mine. You’ve been in this region for long enough to know our cultures and history, and how important it has been for thousands of years to export learning and education – I am very happy to have this opportunity to share our experiences and lessons learnt.
JS – Excellent – so let’s start then. As you know, when I first came to the Middle East in 2001, everyone was focused on solving their own challenges individually, dealing with the growth of home-based airlines and airport capacity issues. After a few years back in Europe I returned again in 2012 to hear talk of greater cooperation, and see some fledgeling initiatives, but little concrete progress. So what changed to get us to where we are today? What were the key elements in your view?
Dr Mohammed – There were two significant factors, which although different, were inter-related and had a significant impact on the thinking of the key international stakeholders. Technology, and Economics.
JS – So can you expand on that? Why were these factors so important?
Dr Mohammed – The first major step in my view was technology related, and the choices made by the UAE and Saudi Arabia when they procured new ATM systems from the same European supplier who already provided the systems to Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. The UAE was first to select the system back in 2018, which went operational in 2020. When the newly corporatised Saudi ANS organisation made its choice in 2021, many argued that there was a risk having a single supplier across the whole region. However the final deal with Saudi Arabia ensured the development by the company of a regional ATM R&D facility that created a centre of excellence which both demonstrated its commitment to the region and ensured that the vast operational expertise we had managing the world’s fastest-growing airports, was used to develop new innovations for use around the globe.
JS – So common operating platforms were an essential part of the journey?
Dr Mohammed – yes, of course. Common platforms allowed improved data exchange, facilitating new, and more efficient methods of operation seamlessly across borders. Informal information sharing between engineers and technicians, and the larger combined buyer power ensured our systems supplier kept the region’s software configured in the most optimum way. By the end of the 2020s, staff would remark that we worked in the largest air traffic control centre in the world, as the sector controllers in Jeddah and Muscat were using exactly the same equipment but just sitting in seats that were nearly 2000km apart. It also provided enhanced contingency for all our operations as demonstrated when Oman and Saudi Arabia supported the UAE for three months when it implemented its significant al Ajwaa Ittihad programme.
JS – And how did economics play its part?
Dr Mohammed – Well, when Oman and Kuwait needed to refresh their ATM systems in the early 2030s you’ll recall that the world was in the middle of the “Cigne Noir” recession as it came to be known, presenting significant financial challenges across the globe. These challenges had been faced for some years by every state in the region, and by then had already encouraged innovative thinking to identify collaboration opportunities. For example, after Qatar Aviation College opened its new facilities at Education City outside Doha, it became the hub from where many of our young controllers from across the region started their training. Similarly, Kuwait was able to identify spare capacity generated by its earlier investments in Aeronautical Information Management and offer this as a service to a number of its neighbours. Therefore the environment was set for an honest and frank discussion amongst the stakeholders about the most effective way to manage the region’s ATM infrastructure. If everyone already spoke about us having the largest control centre in the world, then shouldn’t we manage it as one?
JS – So the previous collaboration experiences and shared financial challenges simplified the discussions?
Dr Mohammed – No, the conversations were not easy, but they were open and very honest and very practically driven. The most important thing that we did right from the start was to focus on individual desired outcomes, which in turn became shared outcomes, and ultimately the vision of this organisation that I have the honour of leading today.
For some time, industry leaders such as the Arab Air Carriers Organisation had been calling for enhancement of the regional ATS route network, and faster implementation of Performance Based Navigation and Air Traffic Flow Management concepts. We were very quickly able to combine the desires of airspace users and airspace providers to create an operational roadmap.
JS – And did all the stakeholders embrace the vision, or were some of the goals irreconcilable? For example, the operational mission of the military, and the “business mission” of the airlines?
Dr Mohammed – Everyone thought that military cooperation was going to be our biggest challenge, however, in reality, the military authorities in the region have been cooperating for the last fifty years in one shape or form. Both in addressing regional conflicts and the national security role, the military have valued the benefits of cooperation and collaboration for some time. In fact, we learned quite a bit from some of their processes around cross-border command and control functions which helped us resolve a number of issues.
JS – And the wider stakeholders, it must be a challenge to satisfy the different demands of a number of different states?
Dr Mohammed – Well the charter that established our organisation stemmed from an original agreement signed at a GCC Heads of State summit, so we had immediate buy-in at the highest of levels. Our board consists of the Ministers responsible for Transport and an armed forces representative from each state, so we always have the key decision makers around the table and are able to debate and challenge to ensure the direction we set is the best solution for the entire region.
JS – So how have the first five years of operation been for your organisation?
Dr Mohammed – It’s been a busy time for us as you can imagine. Whilst the very visible transitions to the two Area Control Centres in Abu Dhabi and Jeddah have been the things that grabbed headlines, the continued improved performance of the rest of the organisation are the things I’m most proud of. The route charges office in Manama means our customers have a single entity to deal with instead of many. The AIM facility in Kuwait ensures the quality of all the vital aviation data used across the region. The Gulf area flow management unit in Muscat effectively manages the interface across the Bay of Bengal while ensuring capacity in our own operational area is not exceeded, and keeping the average delays as low as possible. And as I mentioned earlier, our young controllers and engineers are beginning their careers and learning their trades in Doha. The ATM system relies on all these crucial functions working effectively, playing their own part; it’s that seamless cross-regional delivery that gives me the greatest joy in my work.
JS – Sounds very positive – is there anything you would still like to see change?
Dr Mohammed – One area that hasn’t moved as quickly as I’d have liked has been in the area of regulatory oversight. All our component units are still regulated by individual national authorities in the states where they are located. There are very many reasons why this is the case, however, my Safety and Compliance team find themselves dealing with six different national regulators applying almost universal international standards. However, I am sure that in due course we will harmonise these vital regulatory functions to further enhance the efficiency of our services.
JS – Sounds like a good point for us to look forward to the future, what does the next five or ten years look like for your team?
Dr Mohammed – As others involved in regional cooperation have discovered in the past, our performance is impacted by the efficiencies of the interfaces with our neighbours, and work in that area will continue to be a priority. For example, last year we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with our colleagues in Egypt, to improve information sharing, and agree on topics for the Red Sea Ops Working Group. I see these types of activities being a key focus in coming years, particularly to the east and west of our area, in line with the direction of the significant traffic flows we are managing. Next year will also see Libyan student controllers attending our Aviation College, and we are in detailed discussions with other north African states to help them meet their obligations regarding Aeronautical Information Management using our own facilities.
JS – So despite having achieved so much, you still feel there’s more to do?
Dr Mohammed – Precisely. What we’ve achieved has been the building of a platform that allows the region to effectively deliver services, whilst being an international leader in ATM innovation. The focus on continuous improvement and creation of a learning organisation will be key to our continued success.
JS – Dr Mohammed, thank you very much for your time today, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn about what, in my view, has been a fantastic achievement for not only the region, but for the numerous international airlines, and their passengers who benefit from your services every day. Imagine…