Battle for airspace
by Senad Slatina
Seven years after the war to win mastery over its land, Bosnia-Herzegovina is now in a struggle to gain control of the skies above it.
Before the conflict Bosnian airspace was controlled jointly by Belgrade and Zagreb, but when it ended the country had neither the funds nor the technical expertise to take the job over. As things stand, the lower layer of airspace, below 3,000 metres, is in the hands of the French contingent in the NATO-led Stabilization Force, SFOR. Serbian and Croatian air traffic controllers continue to be responsible for everything above this level because Bosnia lacks the necessary resources.
The arrangement was agreed with Bosnian state bodies at the beginning of 1997 when civil air traffic was restored. Now, some Sarajevo officials want to buy new radar, which would allow a degree of influence over air space and enable them to reap some of the profits flowing from it.
Under the 1997 agreement, Croatia and Serbia are entitled to almost 80 per cent of the revenues from flights over the country. Serbia gets 44 per cent, Croatia 34 per cent with only 22 per cent going to Bosnia. According to the state agency for air traffic, airlines pay almost eight million US dollars to fly above Bosnia. Eurocontrol, the European organisation charged with the safety of air navigation over the country, collects the revenues and shares them out to the three countries. Bosnia's share is only 1.3 million dollars.
Sarajevo does not possess the so-called en-route radar for regional flight control, the system needed to monitor the middle and upper layers of sky. In 1998, the Bosnian authorities took steps to redress this. Former president Alija Izetbegovic signed a contract with the American Northrop Grumman Company for the purchase of an en-route radar worth 11.8 million dollars. Around a quarter of the
sum was paid in the first few months after the agreement was signed. But the prospective purchase soon ran into trouble with some Bosnian politicians and the international community. Officials from the latter insisted that a terminal radar system at Sarajevo airport was all that the country needed. Such equipment would cover the lower level of space around Sarajevo airport and its price was around five million dollars.
Yves Lambert, international coordinator for the development of Bosnian civil aviation, believes that the current agreement with Croatia and Serbia operates well and should not be changed. He says that, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, chart, the Serbian and Croatian radars are more than sufficient for the control of air traffic over the country, and that the purchase of new radar would be a waste of money. Lambert argues that new radar would increase
the price of flights and that international airlines would refuse to pay the money. Thus, Lambert says, Bosnia might not even get the 1.3 million dollars it receives now.
On top of this, Lambert points out that the country has signed an agreement to join the Central European Air Traffic System, CEATS, which is due to assume control over the airspace of Bosnia and seven other countries (Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia) in 2010. The deal provides for Serbia and Croatia to continue controlling Bosnian skies until then. Lambert says this is another reason for Bosnia not to buy its own air traffic control system.
Some Sarajevo officials challenge Lambert's reasoning and even his good intentions. A former director of the country's civil aviation authority, Zijad SiSic, said that contrary to what Lambert claims, the Eurocontrol experts recommended in June 2000 the purchase of radar equipment for regional airspace control over Bosnia. SiSic and his associates also did some research and calculated that the purchase of the en route radar from Northrop Grumman would be fully justified and profitable even if CEATS did start controlling the skies in 2010. According to their calculation, by this date the radar purchase price would be paid off by annual airline fees several times over.
SiSic also cited the recent strikes across Europe of flight control personnel fearful of losing their jobs in the integration process. He said this seriously threw the plan for integrated airspace control into question. According to this SiSic's associates, if the 12 million dollars worth of radar were purchased within the next six months or so and put to work by 2003, it could bring in 50 million dollars to the country over the next seven years.
Currently, it seems all payments to Northrop Grumman have been suspended and nobody appears to know what kind of an agreement has been reached with the company. And Amadeo Mandic, head of the civil aviation authority, said last week that a tender for purchase of a terminal radar for Sarajevo airport would soon follow. He estimated the cost at five million dollars. SiSic believes this approach jeopardises Bosnian state interests, which is why he has urged the launching of international court proceedings to claim that the country is being denied the right to full control of its air space.
Senad Slatina is a journalist on the Bosnian weekly Slobodna Bosna. This article appeared on IWPR'S Balkan Crisis Report, No. 349, 10 July 2002