Monday 28 March 2016

Singapore Flight Information Region: Safety First in managing airspace

By Barry Desker, Published The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2016

The Straits Times reprinted the article "A strange anomaly in management of airspace" (March 21) by Chappy Hakim, former Indonesian air force chief, which appeared in the Indonesian- language newspaper Kompas on March 14. He argued that Indonesia must reclaim the airspace over the Riau Islands currently managed by Singapore as a matter of sovereignty, pride and nationalism.

Although Mr Chappy acknowledged that Europe Flight Information Regions (FIRs) crossed national boundaries, he exclaimed that "we are not Europe".

Mr Chappy's comments display a fundamental misunderstanding of the international system of FIRs established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which has been in operation since 1946. ICAO has emphasised safety of navigation in periodic discussions on re-aligning FIRs. Sovereignty has not been the key issue. Mr Chappy's argument is ironic as Indonesia manages the airspace over Australian-owned Christmas Island and independent Timor Leste.

Just a year ago, Indonesian Transportation Minister Ignasius Jonan had said that Indonesia was not ready to take over the management of airspace above Riau and Riau Islands provinces from Singapore because of limited resources and the huge investment needed to do so.

"It (the takeover of the airspace) is a safety issue. We will take it over when we are ready, but currently we are not ready," he said in Batam, Riau Islands, on March 13 last year, as reported in The Jakarta Post.

Indonesian commentators are often mistakenly under the impression that Singapore retains the revenue from managing the airspace. In reality, the agreement between Singapore and Indonesia provides for Indonesia to receive the revenue collected by Singapore in air navigation charges on civil flights over Indonesian airspace delegated to Singapore.

Operational aspects determine the delineation of the FIR by ICAO based on the need to provide smooth and efficient air traffic control services, with paramount consideration being placed on aviation safety. As a major international air traffic hub, Singapore's interest lies in ensuring that safe, reliable and effective air traffic management facilitates civil aviation in the region.

Although Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport handles more air traffic than Singapore's Changi Airport, the total volume of air traffic which passes through the Singapore FIR is higher because of the large number of overflights. Last year, the total volume of air traffic movements exceeded 650,000, including 350,000 air traffic movements in and out of Changi.

As someone who was involved in civil aviation negotiations from the late 1970s, a key takeaway was that it was essential to manage the FIR fairly and transparently.

Air traffic controllers are trained to deal with flights on a first come, first served basis, dealing with flights entering the region and passing them on smoothly when they transfer to the next FIR as they head to their destination. Over the years, no civil aviation authority in the region has raised any issue regarding the efficiency and impartiality in which the Singapore FIR has been managed.

A critical component has been investment in technological upgrades and state-of-the-art air traffic management systems. This has been accompanied by a commitment to cutting-edge research on possible improvements to air traffic management, supported by the establishment of the Centre of Excellence Air Traffic Management Fund of $200 million.

From a Singapore perspective, a key consideration would be the safety risks of a fragmented airspace around Singapore. Traffic in the airspace around Singapore is particularly complex as five airports (Changi, Seletar, Senai, Batam Hang Nadim and Bintan Raja Haji Fisabilillah) - with a sixth opening shortly serving the Bintan tourist resorts - are situated within a radius of 50 nautical miles of Singapore.

If the Singapore FIR were fragmented and redrawn based on territorial boundaries because of "sovereignty" considerations, coordination of aircraft and air traffic movements would be more complicated, increasing the complexity of air traffic management. This raises the risk of accidents occurring and reduces the efficient use of airspace.

But the safety risks posed by a fragmented airspace surrounding Singapore are not a concern to Mr Chappy. On the contrary, he considers it "sad" that the delineation of FIR boundaries is viewed from the perspective of "aviation safety".

Given the frequent media reports of Indonesia's poor safety standards, the international community should be concerned if Indonesia is entrusted with the responsibility of managing the complex airspace surrounding Singapore.

By emphasising sovereignty and nationalism issues, Mr Chappy and other Indonesian observers with similar views such as the Governor of the Riau Islands province H. Muhammad Sani raise concerns that air traffic management of the FIR will be seen as a policy tool to advance the national interest, not to provide a service in the most efficient, safe and smooth manner for the international community.

Their approach oversimplifies a complex operational and technical issue and reminds us that a bid to take over the management of airspace over Riau and the Riau Islands will entail major costs as well as the need to develop a corps of well-trained personnel.

More significantly, Mr Chappy's article highlights an issue with broader implications for bilateral relations.

The "strange anomaly" that Mr Chappy was referring to was how "the biggest country in Asean" had to submit the management of a part of Indonesia's sovereign airspace to "a small country". Mr Chappy called this "very inappropriate" and an affront to "the nation's honour and dignity".

It reflects the turn to more nationalist policies in Indonesia in the post-Suharto era and a tendency to see relations through the distorted prism of "abang-adik" (big brother-small brother) views on the Indonesia-Singapore relationship.

The risk is that such attitudes could influence the way bilateral and regional relations are handled in Indonesia, with the expectation that Indonesia's neighbours defer to Indonesia because of its size, population and perceived importance in regional and global affairs.

Such an approach is likely to result in countervailing relationships among Indonesia's neighbours.

Barry Desker is Distinguished Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He served as Singapore's Ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993.

A strange anomaly in management of airspace
A debate has been raging in Indonesia over Singapore's management of airspace over Riau, with some saying Jakarta must reclaim the airspace as a matter of sovereignty and pride. Below is a translation of a commentary that appeared in Kompass on March 14, written by a former Indonesian air force chief.
By Chappy Hakim, Published The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2016

In the Strait of Malacca, air traffic regulation of the airspace under the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia, which includes the Natuna Islands and Tanjung Pinang and the Riau Archipelago, comes under the Singapore aviation authority. This airspace is situated within, or is part of, the Singapore flight information region (FIR).

With such a status, all flights in this airspace are managed by the Singapore aviation authority.

Aside from flight routes, aircraft in that area must have obtained permission even at the time when its engines are ignited. In other words, we still have to seek permission from Singapore for all flight operations in that area, even though the area is still within our homeland.

This is indeed a very, very strange anomaly.

It means that in operating flights in that area, Indonesia is faced with numerous limitations and dependence because the power to regulate air traffic comes under the Singapore aviation authority.

This matter has been going on since 1946, that is, before Singapore even existed as a state on this earth. Unfortunately, until now, more than 70 years after we have gained independence, this situation still remains unchanged.

The sad part is that until now, several sides still view this matter as normal, and describe it as a problem that is purely associated with "aviation safety".

The FIR is not a sovereignty issue but an "aviation safety" problem. This is normal, for even many European countries also have their sovereign territory regulated by other countries. Indonesia's aviation authority also regulates Australia's sovereign territory in the Christmas Island sector, hence it is normal and not a problem because, once again, that is just a safety issue.

As for ourselves, we are not even able to thoroughly handle the management of the airspace over Soekarno-Hatta, so why bother to manage the Singapore FIR? And if left to us, we will not be able to manage it.

Many do not realise that Indonesia is the biggest country in the Asean region. Indonesia is situated at a very strategic location, especially in the context of air transportation in the Asean region.

From this aspect alone, it would certainly be very inappropriate if the management of Indonesia's sovereign airspace was submitted to a small country at Indonesia's border, an area that is a very congested global trading lane and also borders many other surrounding countries.

More than merely containing strategic significance in terms of the (value) of commerce and commodities, this is a problem of the nation's honour, the problem of nationalism, the problem of dignity, the problem of patriotism, the problem of a big nation's pride, and the problem of caring about the pride of a maritime nation (remember that we are the largest archipelagic state in the whole world).

We are not Europe! This is a problem of dignity! The problem of national awareness, the awareness of the dignified attitude of a nation! The pride that I Am An Indonesian!

And we have yet to broach the discussion on the love for our nation, which automatically makes every citizen of the country have an inherent duty to maintain the existence of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia!

No person or theory can dispute that regarding the country's defence system, the Strait of Malacca is a critical border area that should become the main focus of Indonesia's attention.

Remember, major wars in the course of world history were mainly caused by "border disputes". Therefore, it would be very naive if people were to subsequently say dismissively that this matter is normal and only an "aviation safety" issue.

These people do not properly realise the strategic and economic value of Indonesia's sovereign airspace in the Strait of Malacca. The strategic and economic value that is based on our dignity as a nation.

When we try to explain this important message, they then say, without any conscience at all, that this is not an issue that needs attention. And worse still, this is usually followed by an explanation that why not (let the situation continue), because we do not yet have enough funding or professional expert staff who are capable of handling all the tasks which are currently still managed by Singapore.

This is a reflection of an attitude of a strong inferiority complex.

Dr Paul Gitwaza said that an "inferiority complex begins when you agree that you are nothing. No one is responsible or author of it except yourself."

The problems of funding and human resources are two matters that can be tackled depending on our own will. There are many paths and ways of obtaining them, once again, depending on our will and fighting spirit. Unfortunately, a will and fighting spirit are indeed not in the vocabulary of people with an inferiority complex.

Get up, let's fight! An inferiority complex is the toll road towards becoming a nation of coolies!

Singapore's stand on airspace
The Straits Times, 21 Mar 2016

The airspaces managed by a country are called flight information regions or FIR.

Such management is not a form of control that undermines the sovereignty of another nation but the provision of services by a designated country - a flight information service and an alerting service.

The provision of these services is brought about by global agreement, facilitated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Such arrangements have been accepted by nations for decades. Yet misconceptions still persist over FIRs, as reflected by the political turbulence created over Singapore's management of flights over some areas in Riau since 1946 - airspace allocated to it by the ICAO with the agreement of Indonesia.

Sovereignty does not come into the picture, as Indonesian leaders too have acknowledged. Indeed, the extent of Indonesia's own FIR overlaps Timor Leste's territorial airspace. That is a feature common in various parts of the world, including Europe, as it would be dysfunctional to strictly align FIRs with national boundaries.

Singapore recognises that Indonesia has a broad aviation development vision and is seeking to build up home-grown technical proficiency to better manage the FIRs across its territory. Indonesian leaders have indicated a time frame of three or four years to improve the skills of aviation personnel and upgrade air traffic control equipment. This is necessary before any formal proposals for change are tabled.

The next step would involve discussions with neighbouring countries, like Malaysia and Singapore, and the ICAO. These will need to address technical and operational matters to ensure that the flow of air traffic across the region is managed smoothly, efficiently and safely.

* Singapore responds to comments by ex-Indonesia air force officers over Flight Information Region
Indonesian officials 'misrepresented facts' in saying issue involves country's sovereignty
The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2017

Singapore's top envoy in Indonesia said former Indonesian air force officers had misrepresented the facts when speaking to local media about the Singapore flight information region (FIR).

"Their comments, as reported, misrepresent the facts. First the administration of the FIR is not an issue of sovereignty," Singapore Ambassador to Indonesia Anil Kumar Nayar said. "It is based on operational and technical considerations to provide effective air traffic control services."

His letter to the chief editor of MetroTVnews was posted on the Singapore embassy's Facebook page yesterday.

The report in on Nov 30 carried the comments of a former Indonesian Air Force chief of staff, Air Chief Marshal (Retired) Chappy Hakim, and the chairman of the Air Power Centre of Indonesia, Air Vice-Marshal (Retired) Koesnadi Kardi.

Indonesia's ambition to become a major regional aviation player also involves reclaiming the FIR, which Singapore currently controls for take-offs, landings and overflights in the region.

In pushing to take over the Singapore FIR, some Indonesian officials have said Jakarta should have full control as it involves the country's sovereignty.

But Mr Nayar said: "The paramount priority is aviation safety. This complex issue is under the ambit of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and involves other countries and international users of the busy airspace covered by the FIR."

He added: "It is not unusual for the air traffic authorities of one country to provide air traffic management services in the territorial airspace of another country. Indonesia, for example, provides air traffic management services in airspace which belongs to other countries."

Referring to a reported comment by Mr Koesnadi that Indonesia "currently... only receive(s) a small slice of the cake" of Route Air Navigation Services (Rans), the envoy said this was untrue.

"All Rans charges that Singapore collects on behalf of Indonesia are remitted to the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) Indonesia, less the bank transfer costs. And DGCA Indonesia has always found the accounts to be in order," he added.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month: "Who controls the FIR is a technical matter of making the best arrangements for air safety. But it has been politicised and made into an issue of sovereignty and national pride... that unfortunately makes the problem much harder to solve."

Indonesia to take over control of airspace above Riau Islands from Singapore
Indonesian military (TNI) may up the ante on Batam to underscore abang-adik dynamic
Report that Singapore has no objections to Indonesian plans to manage Riau airspace inaccurate: MFA

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