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No more bumpy flights to northern areas

Updated February 04, 2019

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A recent development in satellite-based technology has made it possible for automatic systems on aircraft to navigate through the most difficult terrain.— Dawn
A recent development in satellite-based technology has made it possible for automatic systems on aircraft to navigate through the most difficult terrain.— Dawn

Satellite-based navigation and Instru­ment Landing System (ILS) are available to develop Skardu, Gilgit and Chitral airports for all-weather, day-and-night operations. This can be done at a fraction of the cost incurred on the installation of the conventional ILS at the Lahore airport.

A recent development in satellite-based technology has made it possible for automatic systems on aircraft to navigate through the most difficult terrain, such as valleys, and approach to land through clouds and at night. One such example is Queenstown Airport in New Zealand. The same systems can be installed at Skardu, Gilgit and Chitral.

Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches with RNP values currently down to 0.1 allow aircraft to follow precise three-dimensional curved flight paths through congested airspace or difficult terrain. The RNP value of 0.1 means aircraft computer systems will keep the plane along its 3D curved flight path.

The system ensures that the aircraft remains within defined containment area. Think of it like a virtual highway in the sky. The aircraft is controlled both laterally and vertically. Its position is constantly updated through the use of multiple satellites. The system is equally effective during day and night, and in clear and cloudy conditions.

Other requirements include customised crew selection and training package, employing the full capability of the existing RNP technology, and changes to on-board flight procedures to reduce pilot workload on final approach.

General and business aviation aircraft equipped with Enhanced Low Visibility Operations (ELVO), such as Synthetic Vision System (SVS), Combined Vision System (CVS) and Head Up Display (HUD), will also be able to operate to these airports in marginal weather. In the United States, under the NextGen programme, a lot of progress has been made on this count.

A recent development in satellite-based technology has made it possible for automatic systems on aircraft to navigate through the most difficult terrain, like valleys, even at night

The design of missed approach path has been a major challenge in the past because of high ground (mountain) in the takeoff or missed approach path. Therefore, it has been preventing the installation of conventional ILS at these airports. This should be no more a challenge considering the recently acquired ability of the aircraft to follow the accurate 3D curved path in cloudy conditions.

Just a few weeks ago, President Arif Alvi told a press conference that tourism to the northern areas of Pakistan surged by almost 100 times between 2015 and 2018. Only 20,000 to 25,000 tourists visited these valleys in 2015. This makes the latest number of tourists close to 2.5 million each year.

At present, PIA operates two daily flights each to Gilgit and Chitral by ATR aircraft, and one daily flight to Skardu by A-320. ATR-42 is a 40-seater aircraft whereas ATR-72 is a 70-seater aircraft. Even these flights get cancelled when the valleys are blocked because of clouds. The passengers/tourists who get stranded at departure or destination because of weather often create havoc. The road infrastructure is so long, inconvenient and dangerous that it deters them from seeking any other mode of conveyance.

The current government intends to encourage tourism in the northern areas. It should direct the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to develop these three airports on the lines of Queenstown Airport in New Zealand. To do this, the CAA will have to seek international consultancy as local expertise for RNP-AR does not exist at present.

The development of airport and air navigation infrastructure is one of the primary objectives of the CAA as per the 1982 Civil Aviation Ordinance and National Aviation Policy. To do so, the CAA is already charging fees from airlines and passengers in line with provisions of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Airport and air navigation services are called natural monopolies. Therefore, unlike airlines, the CAA doesn’t compete with others. It is, therefore, in a position to increase charges or fees to plug in the gap between revenue and expenditure.

The CAA pays corporate taxes of over Rs15 billion every year, which is about 30 per cent of its operating profit. This means the CAA earns far more than it spends, resulting in such a heavy tax liability every year. Sufficient funds are, therefore, available for the development of a satellite-based, all-weather landing system in Gilgit, Skardu and Chitral. The installation of such a system costs only a fraction of the conventional ILS system. All three airports can be equipped with satellite-based ILS at the cost of one conventional ILS installed at the Lahore airport for Rs3bn. It will include the cost of Ground-Based Augmentation Systems (GBAS) and approach/runway lighting system etc at all three airports.

Gilgit and Chitral airports, with their limited runway length of about 5,000 feet each, are fit for turboprop aircraft operations only, such as ATR-42/72 etc. The Skardu airport, with its 12,000-foot runway length, is fit for operations of jet aircraft up to Airbus 320.

Once installed, our domestic airlines will be required to invest in crew training and upgrade of on-board equipment. Should domestic airlines not be interested in such a venture, these airports may be opened to foreign airlines by expanding existing air services agreements either bilaterally or unilaterally.

Uninterrupted and unfettered airline operations to the northern areas will not only enhance domestic tourism but also revolutionise the local economy.

The writer is an air navigation services expert

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 4th, 2019