Flight Information Regions: what the Malaysian transport minister needs to know

The day before he is to chair the first national aviation council meeting in Putrajaya on Wednesday morning (Dec 5), transport minister Anthony Loke saw it fit to announce Malaysia’s plans to take back control of airspace that Singapore has managed since 1994.

The main contention for this move, according to Loke, was because Singapore had decided to use a new instrument landing system (ILS) at Seletar Airport in January 2019. Malaysia said this would violate its sovereignty.

Singapore responded swiftly and categorically to the transport minister’s remarks. Read it here.

This latest spat comes amidst recent reports that Malaysian low-cost carrier Firefly, a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines Berhad, had to suspend flights from Seletar to Subang Airport near Kuala Lumpur, ostensibly because Seletar lacked “equipment at the new airport.”

Does the transport minister understand aviation laws?

When Loke said the government was protesting on the grounds that the ILS at Seletar infringes on Malaysia’s sovereignty and airspace at Pasir Gudang, an industrial district in Johor Bahru located less than 2km from the airport, he is not only misinformed but misguided.

But it isn’t the first time that Singapore’s neighbours have voiced unhappiness over the little red dot controlling a large chunk of the airspace over the region.

Some two years ago there were calls in Indonesia for Jakarta to take back management of its airspaceover the Riau archipelago from Singapore. But the Indonesians later acknowledged they had limited resources and insufficient funds to do so.

Loke’s comments revealed a lack of understanding of aviation laws and the international structure of flight information systems (FIRs), implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) since 1946.

Managing FIRs doesn’t mean one country has taken over certain portions of another country’s sovereignty. Moreover it doesn’t mean a tiny island can’t control a large FIR (see below).

Gulf airspace

Loke stressed that Malaysia was merely defending its sovereignty, but this argument is flawed.

ICAO has always maintained that air safety navigation is paramount whenever disputes and discussions on airspace are brought up. It has little or nothing to do with sovereignty.

Singapore’s current FIR comprises its own small airspace along with the airspace over some parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the South China Sea.

If Malaysia insists on taking back its airspace from Singapore, it has to convince ICAO that Singapore has indeed infringed on its sovereignty (how?) or that air traffic management conducted by Singapore is sub-par (compared to Malaysia?).

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…

That is going to be a monumental task given that Singapore’s air traffic control has performed exceedingly well for many decades; there have been no issues or complaints regarding snags or technical disruptions.

Amongst all 10 ASEAN nations, Singapore has invested most heavily in air traffic management (ATM). In 2015 alone the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) spent SGD200 million to form a centre of excellence for ATM to improve and upgrade safety and more efficient air travel.

Singapore has also invested much on technical equipment and training of air traffic controllers.

Malaysia’s track record in air traffic control, however, leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Following the disappearance of flight MH370 in March 2014, an independent international probe concluded in July this year there were lapses by Malaysia’s air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur.

It led to the resignation of the head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia.

The safety report itself showed glaring shortcomings not just at the ATC level but also at the national carrier (Malaysia Airlines). Read the entire report here (focus on pages 315-330 where the lapses were highlighted).

When Malaysia’s transport minister proclaimed the protest was done to protect Malaysian airspace, and “the interest of Johoreans”, he displayed a distinct lack of knowledge of international aviation rules as well as the psyche of Johoreans, particularly those living in Johor Bahru.

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