Indian air traffic control is in the midst of a major change. Due to a significant increase in surveillance capabilities by Airport Authority of India (AAI), from 1 January, air traffic controllers will be able to halve the lateral separation between two aircraft leading to more efficient use of airspace from 10 nautical miles (18.5 km)to 5 nautical miles.
Navigation over Indian airspace is controlled by AAI, which, over the last few years, has heavily invested in modernising navigation radars and technology.
While this will increase the airspace capacity by more than 40%, airlines said that it will also improve their access to more direct and fuel efficient routes.
This comes amid record aircraft orders placed by Indian airlines that expect a jump in demand for air travel. According to civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, the number of Indian aircraft has increased by 75% since FY 14 and is likely to double to 1,500 in the next five years.
A senior AAI official said that with Noida and Navi Mumbai Airport both Delhi and Mumbai are going to become a two airport region by next year. Hence increasing the capacity of airspace had become necessary.
In 2018, India mandated modern transponders- automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B for aircraft operating in the majority of the routes. These aircraft are equipped with transponders that continuously transmit the identification, location, altitude, velocity of the aircraft leading to better surveillance.
“Over the last few years, all radars have been upgraded and most to with Mode-S, which employ modern technologies. Further, with the use of ADS-B, the majority of the airspace has come under reliable surveillance coverage. Along with the enhanced coverage of surveillance, all area control centres have modern automation systems which can integrate surveillance feed from a number of sources,” a senior AAI official said.
“Due to all of these, our surveillance capabilities have improved significantly and after due process of safety assessments, we have been able to reduce lateral separation between two aircraft. This will benefit all airlines and we will be able to use the airspace optimally.”
A senior executive of IndiGo which operates 2,000 flights per day said that the new system will help them to get more fuel efficient flight levels.
"Whenever we plan a route, we try to select the optimum altitude which has a favourable wind pattern, thereby reducing the time taken to fly to a destination. With this new rule, we will be able to get a more optimum flight level as authorities will be able to accommodate more aircraft at the same level and airspace will be used efficiently,” said Akash Bhatnagar, vice president, flight operations support at IndiGo.
"This leads to reduction in fuel consumption and also reduces carbon emission and makes aviation more sustainable."
Air traffic controllers said that India has set up a central air traffic flow management facility, where officials from Air Navigation Services, Indian Air Force, and Indian Army work together to allow direct routing whenever restricted air space is not in use.
For instance, in the Delhi-Srinagar sector, flight time has reduced by around 10 minutes after the Indian Air Force opened up previously restricted airspace in Punjab. This, for an Airbus A320neo, implies a saving of almost 400 kg of fuel. Or on routes to Chennai from East Indian airports like Kolkata, Durgapur, and Agartala, the route has been cut by almost 15 minutes as airspace near Sulur Air Force Station near Coimbatore is being used
“Airlines are benefitting from better coordination between defence and civilian authorities which has led to freeing up of airspace resulting in routes becoming shorter and costs coming down. Jet fuel accounts for 40% of the operating costs of an airline. Shorter routes pinch airlines’ pockets much less,” the AAI official said.
By Arindam Majumder