The enhancement to air traffic management in the Akara Corridor—airspace to the south of Korea connecting China and Japan—is welcome news for airlines.

Safety, efficiency, and capacity will all be improved from March 2021 when the Republic of Korea’s Incheon area control center (ACC) takes sole control of a critical area where routes cross.

Hot Spot

The Akara Corridor was designated a “hot spot” by a regional ICAO safety forum several years ago and there have been incidents where aircraft have come too close to each other.

The basic problem was two ACCs—Incheon and Japan’s Fukuoka—having air traffic control responsibility in a single volume of airspace. Incheon controlled two north-south routes while Fukuoka managed an intersecting east-west route connecting China and Japan. So, crossing traffic was not on the same air traffic control frequency, nor controlled from the same ACC.

An aircraft forced to descend quickly through airspace handled by a second ATC unit would therefore create real difficulties. Although each ACC had some visibility of all aircraft in the Akara Corridor, this wasn’t accompanied by all the usual information about a flight, such as aircraft type. A controller would not have radio contact with, or control over, the aircraft operating in the affected airspace underneath the emergency traffic.

Safety wasn’t the only concern. To assure crossing flights maintained separation, the two ACCs operated a flight level allocation scheme. East-west routes necessarily flew at a different altitude to aircraft flying north-south.

This often penalized east-west users, especially heavy aircraft out of Shanghai embarking on long-haul routes to North America. These had to be held at lower altitudes through the corridor when they could have reached higher and more efficient levels. Fuel burn was therefore far greater than necessary, wasting tonnes of fuel and generating avoidable emissions.

“The corridor was a pragmatic solution but far from an optimal one,” says Blair Cowles, IATA’s Regional Director, Safety and Flight Operations, Asia-Pacific. “In fact, IATA first formally raised safety concerns to ICAO in 2005. ICAO convened a series of meetings and it was acknowledged that an update was needed. But the work stalled.”

Finding a solution for the Akara airspace involved a multitude of complexities, both technical and political in nature. It took a personal intervention from the President of the ICAO Council in 2018 to establish a Technical Working Group to eventually resolve the matter.

Direct link

The unique arrangement in the Akara Corridor came about in 1983 to facilitate crucial connectivity between China and Japan, prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea and China. Traffic levels in the corridor were low at the time, amounting to about 10 flights a day, so the framework held no immediate safety concerns.

But as traffic escalated, ultimately reaching some 800 flights a day prior to the COVID outbreak, it was clear that better procedures were needed.

The new agreement will see Japan hand over east-west ATC service provision to Incheon ACC on 25 March 2021, with an additional east-west uni-directional route coming into force at the same time. From that date onwards, Incheon ACC will also transfer control of east-west flights to/from Shanghai ACC at the same point agreed with Japan when the corridor was originally established.

Incheon ACC now has a direct voice link with Shanghai ACC, a key enabler for the new provision. It has also been busy training its staff to handle the increased service.

A second phase with additional routes is expected in July. Flight level allocation will be monitored and reviewed as required to ensure an optimized solution.

“This is a magnificent achievement by all the parties involved—ICAO and the three States,” says Cowles. “It is what we have been pushing for. To have control vested in a single ATC unit and to open a new uni-directional route will make air travel through the corridor safer and provide extra capacity to efficiently handle demand as traffic returns to pre-COVID levels.

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