Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dubai Air Traffic Control: The sky is safe -- Meet the staff at Dubai International Airport responsible for ensuring 100% safety

 Dubai: Every move, every step, every turn, they’re watching. They’re the people of the tower, tucked away on the tarmac, making sure that every flight that takes off and lands does so with 100 per cent safety.

Otherwise known as the ATC or Air Traffic Control.

Gulf News visited Dubai International Airport to meet its ATC personnel and learn first-hand the effort and energy that goes into making sure that air travel is as safe as it possibly can be, especially with the rapid growth in air travel being witnessed by the UAE.

In the May 2013 IHS Jane’s Airport Review, it was reported: “The GCAA estimates that total flights in UAE airspace will soar from 608,877 in 2010 to around 1.5 million by 2030.”

The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), established in 1996, is the sole authority for the control and regulation of civil aviation in the UAE – safety is one of their key focuses.

There are several aspects, departments and bodies that work towards that assurance. Today, we look at the people who take care of ground control and the airspace around the airport for about 4,000 feet.

Air Traffic Control Officers

Thani Al Thani, Dubai Tower Team Leader, said: “An ATCO is a person who provides service … is responsible for the safe flow of air traffic, from one airport to another.”

Simply put, but there are many steps that ensure this safe passage. We begin with the filing of a flight plan.

They are documents submitted, usually by pilots, with the airport prior to departure. It includes information such as departure and arrival points, estimated time en route, alternate airports in case of bad weather, and number of people on board, details about the pilot, airway route the flight would be taking and information about the aircraft itself.

This knowledge is used by the ATCO in his or her subsequent interaction with the aircraft, like an identity tag, especially as a code is allocated to each aircraft.

From bay to runway

Once the passengers have boarded an aircraft and all checks are done, the pilot calls the Dubai Tower from the bay to get clearance from the ATC to start moving or ‘request for taxiing’. ATCOs then use various systems at hand to ensure that it is, indeed, safe for the aircraft to move out of the bay. They do visual checks and use the ground movement radar to ensure there is no block or impediment in the path.

“We provide information about the weather, runway and other instructions, following which there is a read back from the pilot to confirm. Then we give the go ahead for the push back and the aircraft starts to taxi,” Thani said.

Initially the aircraft would move at a slow speed of about 10 knots (18.52km/hr), till it reaches the “holding point” of the runway.

ATCOs are trained to maintain the safe and efficient flow of air traffic. They apply separation rules at all times to ensure that aircraft are always at a safe distance from each other, be it a horizontal or vertical separation.

The flight is guided to the holding point on the runway, the last point from where the aircraft starts the final taxi. It only leaves when it has been cleared for take-off.

ATCO Mohammed Al Shamsi explained: “For example there has to be certain amounts of time difference in the departure of say an A380 and A320 – at least 3 to 4 minutes. The speed of the preceding aircraft has to be taken into account. It could be a helicopter… need to keep an eye.” They have to make sure that the following aircraft doesn’t catch up because it is lighter, faster. One tiny error and two aircraft can end up being too close for comfort.

Yet again, the flight plan information comes into play. The ATCO checks the size of the aircraft, its ability to climb, and the speed it can achieve and decides when it can start moving from the holding point. And all this is in a matter of minutes.

Dubai Airport currently has the ability to manage about 34 departures and 32 arrivals an hour – an average of 65 aircraft in 60 minutes. “We are looking at improving capacity. Dubai is doing very well … 1,100 movements per day, two years ago it was 700 to 800… progressing very well,” Thani said. They hope to be able to move 90 aircraft an hour, come 2016.

Holding for take off

The job of an ATCO is extremely stressful and they work short shifts of two hours with breaks to ensure that they never switch off. At the end of the week, they get three days off. And while they’re working, an ATCO is not allowed to handle more than a specific load.

Once the aircraft starts moving from the holding point and starts to taxi, the top speed it can hit on the Dubai Airport runway is “250 knots (463 km/hr)”.

Air space, like land has boundaries and jurisdiction. In the case of Dubai, till the height of 4,000 feet, the Dubai International Airport’s Control Tower manages it, beyond that till the height of 13,000 feet Dubai Approach covers it. Both come under Dubai Air Navigation Services or DANS. After that it is managed by the Abu Dhabi-based federal body managing UAE’s skies.

So, when an aircraft enters UAE airspace, its first interaction is with Abu Dhabi, then Dubai Approach steps in followed by the ATC tower at the airport.

The skies themselves have designated airways or highways that each aircraft using an airport has to follow. This is when SID comes into play.

The Standard Instrument Departure is a route for an aircraft from a designated airport onto the airway – something akin to a feeder lane meeting the highway.

After take-off, the tower ATCOs continue to track and guide the aircraft until handover to Dubai Approach. It is imperative now to maintain vertical separation, which cannot be less than 1,000 feet. This is assigned as flight levels (FL). Additionally, pilots are advised of any tall buildings that might be present in the vicinity of the airport. All this is on a good day.

Bad weather

What happens in the event of fog or haze – inclement weather conditions?

“We’re trained to handle every difficulty or type of emergency. Each emergency has a category assigned to it with appropriate procedures. There are check lists in place and we help the pilots to proceed in a cautious manner,” Thani said. This is further facilitated by the presence of traffic collision avoidance systems, which are especially useful at night time to compensate for lower naked eye visibility.


The safeguards that are used in the case of departures come into play during arrivals, too. An aircraft moves in from the airway into the pathway to the airport using STAR or Standard Terminal Arrival Route. Dubai Approach hands over aircraft to the Tower. A conversation takes place with an ATCO that again looks at visibility, separation, speed and other safety factors.

An Instrument Landing System is in place that provides the pilot with a visual electronic glide slope on his or her screen inside the aircraft. Meanwhile, once again ground movement radars are used to check there are no safety hazards, along with a visual evaluation.

The aircraft locks into the glide slope; the ATCO provides the necessary information such as weather conditions and guides the pilot through the process. He or she needs to make sure the aircraft is not coming in too fast or too slow, is not going to over-run the runway or enter restricted area.

Once the aircraft has landed, it eventually gets guided to a bay and a journey comes to an end, only for the next cycle to begin.

Facts and figures


Average number of aircraft that can be handled in an hour by Dubai ATC


Km/h is the average speed of aircraft, as it starts to move out of the bay


Km/h is the maximum speed of aircraft on runway, while taking off

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