The Straits Times says

Keep bird's-eye view of airspace issues

Misperceptions of flight turbulence are exemplified by the common synonym "air pockets", which is misleading because pockets or spaces without air do not exist in nature; the bumps are in reality the result of varying airflow. In a somewhat similar way, there is misunderstanding of the airspaces managed by a country, called flight information regions (FIR). Such management is not a form of control that undermines the sovereignty of another nation. It is in fact the provision of services by a designated country - a flight information service and an alerting service.

Aircraft could scarcely travel efficiently and safely without the presence of seamless, standardised and technically sound services within the different flight regions that every bit of the atmosphere has been divided into. This was 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 simply does not come into the picture, as Indonesian leaders too have acknowledged of late. 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, as it would be utterly dysfunctional to strictly align FIRs with national boundaries. All works well within Singapore's FIR. But, alas, when nationalist sentiments are stirred, FIR issues are conflated with cross-border irritants and false assumptions, leading to calls for change.

What is recognised in Singapore is that Southeast Asia's largest nation also has a broad aviation development vision and is seeking to build up home-grown technical proficiency to better manage the FIRs across its territory. That is only natural for a country aspiring to progress to a higher level of overall national development. 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 should involve discussions with neighbouring countries, like Malaysia and Singapore, and the ICAO. It is crucial to address technical and operational matters to ensure that the flow of air traffic across the region is managed smoothly, efficiently and safely.

A coordinated approach to airspace management will not just maintain international confidence in the standards and common imperatives of regional aviation authorities, but will also lend credence to Asean's commitment to open up its skies and not be seized by boundaries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Keep bird's-eye view of airspace issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe