Saudi Arabia is committed to modernizing its Air Traffic Management (ATM)

Saudi Arabia is upgrading its air traffic infrastructure along with providing a path for drones and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, to emerge as the Middle East’s leading aviation hub. The investment is coming through private and public funding and is aligned with Vision 2030, released in 2016, on how Saudi Arabia can become less dependent on oil and diversify its economy. The Kingdom has launched a new ‘Harmonising Air Travel’ policy that has been endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Air Traffic Management’s (ATM) modernization is another major goal being undertaken by Saudi aviation authorities. Saudi Air Navigation Services (SANS) which became a private company in 2016 has signed technology and training agreements, the most prominent being with Indra Systems, to establish the first virtual Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower in the Middle East. In Q1 2022, the Kingdom recovered 100 per cent of the domestic and international passenger air traffic volume that had plummeted due to the pandemic.

A joint venture by Neom and German eVTOL-maker Volocopter is developing a regulatory framework for eVTOL operations. The new economic zone will expand air freight operations to 4.5 million tonnes and GACA’s strategy will allow air transport’s efficiency ranking to reach the Top-5 global ranks by 2030. Neom is to welcome its first tourists in 2023. Plans are underway to extend the connectivity and have two global long-haul connecting hubs – Jeddah and Riyadh. The government wants more direct international connectivity to boost a nascent tourism sector and develop global commerce.

Several fleet expansions are being undertaken across the Kingdom. A new aircraft leasing company, AviLease, was formed last year, which will initially focus on scaling through purchase-and-lease-back transactions with airlines, portfolio acquisitions and direct orders from aircraft manufacturers. Saudi Air Ambulance, offering a nationwide air medical service, will acquire over the next three years 20 Airbus H145s and six H160s; and 16 Leonardo AW139s and AW109 Trekkers. Options include potential orders of up to six more AW139s, 10 H145s and four H160s. The Helicopter Company (THC) has signed contracts with Airbus and Leonardo for an initial order of 43 helicopters, with options for a further 20. Meanwhile commercial airlines are also increasing their fleets.

To handle the increasing air traffic, the country’s sole ANSP is also widening its coverage with the latest technology. Saudi Air Navigation Services (SANS), an independent company owned by the government, covers services for the entire Saudi airspace and provides air traffic management, and air navigation systems including the procurement, operations and maintenance of all air navigation systems. SANS, a corporatized company since July 2016, is working on a transformation of the air navigation services sector with a vision to become a regional ANSP leader by providing world-class services to provide safe, reliable and cost-efficient services. It has in operation 16 towers; two Area Control Centres; eight Approaches and 890 ATCOs among its total 1,828 employees.

It signed a deal with Indra in June 2022 to deploy the Middle East’s first virtual air traffic control tower in the Kingdom. The leading global technological engineering company for the aerospace, defence and mobility sectors will develop and operate a virtual control tower at Al Ula International Airport. The two companies will lead the introduction of this revolutionary technology into a region with a large number of medium-sized airports that could benefit from its use, as they will be able to conduct all their management from a single virtual tower to reduce their operating costs and increase the frequency of flights.

The project will position the Saudi aviation sector at the forefront of global development and contribute to driving the goals set out in Vision 2030. This project will constitute a qualitative leap for the navigation services provided by it and enhance its position as one of the operators that manage its airspace by the most demanding international safety and quality standards. The deal also represents the first step by these organisations for future collaboration in the field of virtual control towers. Indra is one of the main global leaders in air traffic systems and a pioneering company in the development of virtual towers. It had been the first company in the world to obtain authorization to operate its virtual tower without any restrictions on capacity. It is now incorporating the use of artificial intelligence to support the work of the controllers and enable them to detect risk situations more rapidly and effectively.