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Saudi may open military airspace as part of $100bn aviation drive

Part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is to increase tourism Reuters/Ibraheem Al Omari
Part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is to increase tourism
  • Only 56% of Saudi airspace is currently open to civil aviation
  • Kingdom is launching second national airline
  • More aviation routes, passengers and cargo requires more airspace

Saudi authorities may open up some restricted military airspace to accommodate a surge in civilian flights, as part of the kingdom’s $100 billion investment to handle 330 million passengers a year by the end of the decade.

Only 56 percent of Saudi airspace is open to civil aviation, with the remaining 44 percent used for military and restricted use, according to Saudi information presented to the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

John Swift, an independent aviation consultant based in Spain, said Saudi Arabia faces airspace capacity challenges in order to be able to handle the anticipated rise in volume of new aircraft, but discussions are underway.

“Saudi Arabia has been working on its transformation programme and has brought in specialist help over the years,” Swift said.

“There have been high-level strategic agreements between the military authorities and the civil authorities.”

The negotiations were confirmed by Mohammed Alkhuraisi, vice president of strategy and business intelligence at Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA).

“Once you expand one element of the value chain, the other ones become a bottleneck. We need to expand across all fronts,” Alkhuraisi said.

“There are multiple projects ongoing to redesign the air capacity and air corridors.

“We are trying to resolve restrictions as well as applying the latest technologies and radar information systems to shorten trip time, open new corridors and increase capacity. We will announce the outcome once it’s completed.”

Airliner, Airplane, Aircraft
Saudia is set to be joined by a second national airline

Alkhuraisi said allowing civilian aircraft to use some restricted military airspace was “one way to look at” solving the airspace issue, but any decision would need the cooperation of other Saudi government stakeholders.

“This goes beyond the authority’s jurisdiction to other airport security agencies, and there are criteria requirements,” he said.

As part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plans, the kingdom is aiming to transform its aviation and logistics sector.

It is increasing cargo capacity from around a million tons per annum to 4.5 million tons, and hopes to boost the number of passengers through its 29 airports from 100 million to 330 million by the end of the decade.

The goal is to increase the sector’s contribution to national gross domestic product from six to 10 percent, helping to boost its non-oil revenues to SAR 45 billion ($12 billion) a year. 

The project will also link the kingdom to 250 cities around the world, a second national airline will be launched, and over 3 million new jobs will be created.

More planes, routes, passengers and cargo will put a strain on the airspace and aviation infrastructure, which will open up opportunities for international investors and operators, Swift said.

“A lot of the opportunities will be services driven as opposed to systems. Systems [such as those for] traffic management are already in place,” he said. “There are opportunities for new entrants around data management.”

While Saudi Arabia is looking to invest in developing its domestic airspace, aircraft will still face issues once they leave the kingdom’s borders as some neighbours have not kept pace.

“I think the biggest challenge may be Iraqi airspace to the north, but a lot of the flows would be traffic for European destinations and inbound traffic coming to and from Saudi from Iraq,” Swift said.

Ahead of the launch of a new national airline and the opening up of its airspace to more carriers, Gulf-wide traffic management is one issue that is also being discussed, Swift said.

“While all the states have made a significant investment in the region there’s going to have to be a greater focus on air traffic flow management.

“Those discussions have taken place but they’re not at the substantial level. Everyone’s been addressing their own issues.

“We’ve got the military airspace challenges, ground infrastructure challenges at the airport, and what happens outside your borders.”