After the coup in Myanmar, ATC in Kolkata, India, had to assist flights through the ATC-free skies of the neighboring country’s airspace.
Under normal operations, ATC controllers in Kolkata would hand over east-bound flights to their colleagues in Yangon, Myanmar. However since the coup in that country on the 1st of February, this started to become difficult. In the pandemic, air traffic is obviously much lower than usual. However there are still about 140 aircraft entering Myanmar airspace daily, after flying through Kolkata’s Flight Information Region (FIR).
Myanmar’s ATC in Yangon continued operations for about a week, working with Kolkata when necessary. But eventually, controllers in India realized this was about to change. One controller recounts:
“From the evening of February 8, there was no soul at Yangon ATC due to the internal disturbance in the city. Two controllers had tried to keep the ATC operational but had to ultimately switch off after issuing a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning pilots that air traffic services (ATS) would not be available after 7.20pm that evening.”
Fortunately, Kolkata ATC could still work with Myanmar controllers in Lashio. This city is further north in Myanmar. Most of the disturbance in the coup was in Yangon, the capital. Between them, controllers had recently put a contingency plan in place, in case Yangon wasn’t operational. They had to close most routes going through Myanmar’s airspace. They diverted traffic away from the country all together, whenever possible. But some flights would need to go through.
Kolkata ATC Threading The Needle Through Myanmar
Flights from Kolkata ATC towards China, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore had a single route available through Myanmar. All aircraft had to move in a straight line, at only one altitude (29,000 feet). They also had to keep an increased separation, at 15 minutes. For this to happen, controllers had to converge traffic from two routes into one. This required coordination with controllers at Bangladesh, before Myanmar’s airspace.
After Myanmar, Kolkata ATC had to coordinate with controllers in China and Thailand. All this is for east-bound traffic. Controllers at those locations had to make similar arrangements for west-bound flights. Myanmar ATC controllers returned to work on February 16th, to the relief of their colleagues in Kolkata and elsewhere. The closure had lasted 8 days.
Of course the situation affected many more flights, that avoided the area altogether. But this wasn’t an option for many. In all, this is a tense but thankfully rare situation. Flight crews and ATC occasionally have to deal with strikes, causing similar problems. And more recently we saw large sections of airspace close, due to ATC centres closing due to Covid-19 cases. But situations like these involve much more uncertainty. An ATC official in Kolkata summed it up like this:
“Controllers in Kolkata were not only required to space out flights while merging them at the same level, they had to also coordinate with the ATC in Kunming in China and Bangkok in Thailand. Over the next seven days and nights, controllers in Kolkata guided more than 1,000 flights safely through Myanmar airspace without a single conflict report or a close call.”