I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to attend this meeting and to speak on the topic of the Russian military exercises which were originally planned to take place this week in Irish-controlled airspace. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Peter Kavanagh, who is Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, general manager foren-route and aeronautical information services. He operates from Ballycasey in Shannon.
I will briefly introduce the committee to the Irish Aviation Authority. This is primarily for the purpose of informing members as to the areas of the IAA’s responsibilities I can discuss this afternoon and which areas are outside my remit. As the committee is aware, the IAA is a commercial State company founded in 1994 under the provisions of the Irish Aviation Authority Act 1993. We currently carry out three key functions under statute: safety regulation of civil aviation, oversight of security regulation for civil aviation, and air navigation and air traffic management services in Irish-controlled airspace.
As committee members will be aware, the IAA is currently undergoing a process of restructuring which involves the separation of its functions into two distinct companies. Post separation, the new IAA will retain the IAA’s current safety regulatory and security oversight functions, while the functions of the Commission for Aviation Regulation, CAR, will be merged into the new single aviation regulator. A new company, AirNav Ireland, will be established to carry out the IAA’s current commercial air navigation and air traffic management services functions. For the purposes of this hearing, I will refer to this part of the IAA as the air navigation service provider, the IAA ANSP. As members will be aware, the restructuring process is well under way. The formal date for vesting is expected to be 31 March. I am highlighting this to ensure that committee members are clear with regard to which entity or roles I am speaking on behalf of today. My position as CEO of the current IAA will transition to become CEO of AirNav Ireland when vesting day occurs.
As I mentioned, we are currently in a transitionary phase and accordingly I do not have any current responsibilities for aviation safety regulation. Mr. Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, who I understand met with the committee on a separate matter last November, is CEO designate of the new IAA and is currently responsible for aviation regulatory matters. Therefore, my statement is focused solely on the IAA’s air navigation service provision activities.
With regard to Irish-controlled airspace, the IAA ANSP’s core role is the provision of air traffic services to civilian aircraft operating in Irish-controlled airspace. We do this in line with international standards and recommended practices as set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, which is a UN agency. We provide air traffic management services to the three State airports, Dublin, Shannon and Cork, as well as providing air navigation and air traffic management services in a number of different areas of Irish-controlled airspace, which covers 455,000 sq. km. We are certified to carry out these activities under the requirements of Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2017/373 and our processes and procedures are approved by the regulatory authority in line with European and international requirements. Safety of air traffic management, ATM, operations is our number one priority.
I have included in our written submission a simple map outlining relevant airspace regions. I will now explain this map for the committee members. For their information, the map also shows the area where the Russian military exercise had been scheduled to take place. This is marked in red. Although the Russian Federation has indicated that planned exercise would be moved as a result of which the original airspace restrictions have been cancelled, we need to remain alert that the exercises could take place at a new location outside of our area of responsibility but in an area that could impact our operation.
The Shannon flight information region, FIR, refers to the airspace over the Irish Republic landmass and a portion of airspace off the west coast of Ireland. This airspace has been designated to the Irish State by ICAO. The Shanwick oceanic region, which stretches to halfway across the Atlantic Ocean including the two areas marked as NOTA and SOTA, is international airspace and is considered “high seas” airspace. Under a state-to-state international agreement made between Ireland and the UK in 1966 and approved by ICAO, air traffic control in the Shanwick oceanic region is the responsibility of the UK. As part of this Shanwick oceanic agreement, Ireland has responsibility for aeronautical communications with aircraft and therefore the UK and Ireland work closely and collaboratively to ensure the safety of aircraft transiting through the Shanwick region. Updates to this 1966 agreement in 1990 and 2004 resulted in the provision of air traffic services in the SOTA and NOTA parts of the Shanwick region being delegated by the UK to Ireland. Consequently, the IAA ANSP provides a full air traffic management service to air traffic in NOTA, SOTA and the Shannon FIR, effectively operating these three regions as one consolidated airspace region. It is important to remember that NOTA and SOTA remain as international or high seas airspace. For clarity, NOTA stands for the northern oceanic transition area while SOTA stands for the Shannon oceanic transition area.
The IAA ANSP operates to the highest European and international standards. Safety is our number one priority and we have rigorous processes and procedures, approved by regulators, in place to ensure we deliver a safe, effective and efficient service to all airspace users. There is continual regulatory oversight of our entire operation, including regular audits and inspections. In addition, any changes to our operation must be approved by the regulators following their review of detailed risk assessments and safety cases. This high level of oversight is conducted by both national and European regulators, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA.
Our safety performance is among the best in Europe. In 2020, the latest year for which scores are available, the IAA ANSP scored 96% in the EASA effectiveness of safety management ranking process carried out by EASA and the national regulator. This positions us in the top three European service providers and we have consistently ranked in the top five European service providers over the past five years. The IAA has a mature safety monitoring system in place and we prioritise continual safety and refresher training for staff.
We also operate an efficient, high-quality service for our airline customers. While, obviously, the past two years have been difficult due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a long history of effectively no delays in Irish airspace while our environmental score was second in Europe last year. This provides significant benefits to airlines and to passengers in terms of on-time performance, fuel and CO2 efficiency. Our unit rate cost to customers is one of the lowest in Europe and our recent annual customer care survey from 2021 indicates a customer satisfaction score of over 90%.
The IAA ANSP deploys the latest technology to support our safety and efficiency objectives. Our COOPANS ATM system, developed between the IAA ANSP and our partners in Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Portugal and Croatia, is widely regarded across Europe as the standard bearer in terms of air traffic management systems. This, combined with modern radar, communications and navigational systems, equips our staff with the necessary tools to deliver their safety critical roles in an effective manner.
Ireland’s location on the western edge of Europe means that the IAA ANSP plays a critical role in the effective and efficient functioning of the European ATM network. Over 90% of transatlantic air traffic transits through IAA-controlled airspace. We manage our airspace in a manner that is flexible to the needs of our airline customers, dividing the airspace into different blocks or sectors to ensure each individual aircraft is safely managed and taking account of the traffic flows which can vary from day to day.
These activities for the Shannon FIR, NOTA and SOTA airspace regions are managed from our Shannon en-route centre at Ballycasey, Shannon, County Clare. Air traffic control officers based in Ballycasey have specific licences and ratings for the management of this en-route traffic and undergo rigorous regulator-approved training. They receive accurate radar data from IAA radar stations based along the west coast indicating the exact location of each aircraft while they communicate directly with the flight crew through VHF communications and our COOPANS system. Air traffic controllers follow strict procedures and receive regular safety management and refresher training. I trust this has provided some useful background to the committee. I will now go into more detail with regard to the safe management of civilian aircraft when there is a military exercise.
As the committee is aware, the Russian Federation advised of a planned military exercise from 3 to 8 February. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, announced on 29 January that he had received a letter from the Russian Minister of Defence confirming the exercise would be moved outside of Ireland's exclusive economic zone, EEZ. The IAA received a notice to airmen, NOTAM, on 31 January that cancelled the original notice of this exercise. We have received no further aeronautical information from the Russian Federation regarding a new exercise area, which could be outside our area of responsibility and not subject to IAA ANSP notification. Therefore, we will remain vigilant and consult with adjacent air traffic control centres to minimise any impact to our operation.
For the purpose of ensuring that the committee is fully briefed, I will outline how we would plan to manage the impact of the exercise on civilian aircraft within the airspace under our control. This information can be considered to describe the process by which the IAA ANSP would manage any other similar exercise in international airspace, be it Russian, UK, US or any other military. I stress that, while not commonplace, military exercises do occur from time to time in international waters or airspace and that there are agreed international procedures in place for the safe management of civilian aircraft while such exercises take place. These procedures are set down under the Chicago Convention and are overseen by ICAO. Ireland is a contracting state to ICAO and the IAA, as Ireland’s ANSP, follows and implements the standards and procedures set down by ICAO. In the case of military exercises in international airspace, the responsibility is on the State carrying out the exercise in the first instance to ensure that it has notified the exercise to the relevant ANSP in line with the ICAO requirements. Once this happens, the State responsible for the airspace, which, in the case of the original planned exercise, was the UK, and the relevant ANSP, in this case, the IAA ANSP, follow the remainder of the agreed procedure to notify aircraft and restrict access to the area in question in order to ensure the safety of civilian aircraft.
With regard to EUROCONTROL, it is the Irish State that is a member of this pan-European body. The IAA ANSP's interaction with EUROCONTROL is with its European network manager function. In the case of the Russian military exercise, EUROCONTROL's network manager would have limited responsibility, apart from ensuring submitted aircraft flight plans submitted do not contain a flight route through the airspace in question.
The military exercise that the Russian Federation had planned for the period from 3 February to 8 February was to take place in a portion of the SOTA region of the north Atlantic indicated by the red rectangle in the map I have provided. As indicated, this is international airspace. Any state can utilise this airspace once it follows the agreed ICAO approach for notification to civil aviation.
We are satisfied that, in this instance and in the context of the ICAO process, the Russian Federation followed the appropriate internationally agreed process for notification regarding such an exercise. In addition, once notified of the exercise and its planned location, the IAA ANSP followed the appropriate process to ensure the safety of civilian aircraft.
I will now bring members through these steps at a high level, noting that following the cancellation of the notice to airmen or pilots, NOTAM, for this exercise, the restrictions indicated in these steps have now also been cancelled. Notification from the Russian Federation to the UK's air traffic management authority, UK National Air Traffic Services, UK NATS, regarding a proposed military exercise was received on 19 January. UK NATS was the appropriate first point of contact under the ICAO procedure because, as explained, the portion of airspace in question, SOTA, remains the responsibility of the UK. Following receipt of this notification, UK NATS contacted the IAA ANSP as the latter is the entity to which air traffic management services have been delegated in the SOTA region. Once the notification was received, there was a period of co-ordination and co-operation between the IAA ANSP, UK NATS and the EUROCONTROL network manager.
In parallel with this, we carried out the required safety assessments and advised UK NATS and EUROCONTROL regarding the exact details of the restrictions that needed to be put in place. The procedures developed to ensure the safe rerouting of aircraft to avoid the proposed exercise were then submitted for approval to the Irish regulatory authorities on 27 January. On 27 January, the UK authorities published the required NOTAM, which informs airlines with regard to the closure of the portion of airspace. The NOTAM outlined the specific airspace and specific waypoints that would be closed and the hours of closure. This means that aircraft could not be routed to the closed waypoints during the time within which the NOTAM applied. In parallel, and in line with the NOTAM, EUROCONTROL's systems would not allow an aircraft to plan a flight through the restricted area during the period when the NOTAM is applicable.
A separate NOTAM was also issued by the IAA to advise of the UK-issued international NOTAM, while we had also advised airlines of the airspace closure through our customer care channels. In addition to this, and at an operational level, the IAA's en route operations manager had advised operations in the Gander oceanic region, the area adjacent to Shanwick controlled by Nav Canada, of the closure and the waypoints that were not to be available for transit. This means that Gander would not route aircraft coming from North America via the closed points during the period when the NOTAM was to apply.
The practical outcome of these steps is that the area of airspace where the exercise was to take place had been closed to civil aircraft for the required period between 3 February and 8 February. To further protect civil aviation, we had also put in additional buffers to widen the restricted area beyond that notified by the Russian authorities and had increased the restricted altitude to unlimited, meaning no civilian aircraft could fly into, or over, the restricted area. We also widened the time of the closures to ensure that all aircraft would have exited the area well in advance of the naval exercise commencing.
All of the above steps were put in place to ensure the safety of the operation of civilian aircraft. Again, I stress that this approach is consistent with the ICAO standard, which is designed to protect the safety of civilian aircraft. Although there would have been a chance that the efficiency of aircraft routing would be marginally affected as a result of the NOTAM, requiring extra track miles for aircraft due to the need to route around the closed airspace, the safety of operations within Irish air traffic control airspace would not have been impacted, as all civilian aircraft would be routed away from the relevant area in SOTA during the activity.
For clarity, this same process would be put in place for any other military event in international airspace controlled by the IAA ANSP. If an exercise was planned for further out in the Atlantic in the Shanwick region operated by the UK NATS, then the IAA ANSP would not have been involved in the development of the NOTAM or the restriction of the airspace. In that instance, UK NATS would follow the ICAO procedures and route the civilian aircraft safely away from the restricted area. We would, however, have been made aware of the exercise by UK NATS, due to our aeronautical communications role in the Shanwick region.
I will give some detail in the context of normal operations in international airspace. On a normal day, the IAA ANSP provides a full air traffic management or air navigation service to airlines operating in the areas of international airspace that fall within its responsibility, including NOTA and SOTA. For example, over the course of last week, we handled an average of 800 aircraft per day in NOTA, SOTA and the Shannon flight information region combined. By way of comparison, in normal times, for example, 2019, this figure could be more than 950 aircraft per day.
There are typically two main flows on the north Atlantic: the eastbound flow in the early morning, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., which primarily sees US and Canadian flights into Europe; and the westbound flow in the late morning, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., which primarily sees European departures to North America. These aircraft typically follow set tracks in north Atlantic airspace, which are set each day depending on the location of the north Atlantic jet stream. Eastbound aircraft want to get into the jet stream as it provides for a faster, more fuel-efficient crossing, while westbound aircraft want to avoid the headwind caused by the jet stream and so follow a track that is either north or south of the jet stream, depending on the location of the jet stream on any particular day. This means that, depending on the weather, there may be a large volume of air traffic in the SOTA region on any particular day or very little.
At present, based on current weather projections, it is likely that some of the north Atlantic route tracks would be set to go through the SOTA airspace between 3 February and 8 February, or traffic would route through SOTA to join a particular north Atlantic track. With the Russian exercise now cancelled and the NOTAM restricting the airspace also cancelled, aircraft are now free to plan flights through the area of SOTA that was to have been restricted. They can now plan the most efficient transatlantic routing as normal, taking account of the jet stream and without having to avoid a portion of SOTA. However, if the Russian exercise had not been cancelled and the relevant portion of SOTA airspace was to be closed between 3 February and 8 February, then these aircraft would have to fly an alternative route if they had been planning to go through that portion of SOTA. The procedures that the IAA ANSP had put in place would have provided a safe route for these aircraft around the restricted zone and on to their destination, once they were clear of the restricted zone.
I trust this provides an overview of the management of this exercise from an air traffic management perspective. While events such as this in international airspace are not common, they do occur from time to time. Air navigation service providers such as the IAA follow the ICAO standard procedures. We treated the event in question in the exact same as we would have treated any other military exercise in Irish-controlled airspace. While the NOTAM has now been cancelled and civilian aircraft are free to route through the relevant portion of airspace between 3 February and 8 February, the approach taken to this event would have fully protected civilian aircraft from the exercise.
Our staff are trained for events like this, and the routing of aircraft away from the restricted airspace is not a significant concern for us. Following NOTAMs is something airlines do daily.
Safety is the IAA ANSP's first priority. The actions taken since being notified of the proposed exercise were carried out in the interest of the safety of civil aviation and fully in line with ICAO standards and recommendations.
I thank the members for their attention. I am now available to answer any question they may have.