South Korea and Japan are setting aside historical grievances to redraw responsibilities for air traffic control over the East China Sea following recent near misses, sources told Reuters.
Responsibility in the so-called "AKARA corridor" through South Korean airspace is currently split, with South Korean controllers shepherding North-South flights, and Japan's directing East-West flights, many of them in and out of Shanghai.
But South Korean and Japanese air traffic controllers operate on different radio frequencies, making communications more difficult for pilots who may be dealing with emergency in-flight situations, or needing to change altitude to avoid turbulence or bad weather.
An agreement in principle has been reached for South Korea to take over Japan's role, according to two sources briefed on discussions brokered by the United Nations aviation agency.
The new agreement is expected to take effect in April, according to a document seen by Reuters, which was shared with U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) council members this week.
The compromise comes despite decades of strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo over their wartime past, exacerbated in recent months by a simmering trade dispute. South Korean airlines have cut flights to Japan due to a plunge in passenger demand.
China was included in the negotiations, as its air traffic controllers currently hand over to Japanese controllers in the corridor, and will in future hand over to South Korean controllers.
"The TWG (technical working group) has achieved significant progress in reaching a potentially satisfactory compromise that resolves the safety and capacity concerns, maintains the best aspects of the current traffic flow and incorporates nearly all of the operational requirements of all three States," the document said.
ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu was directly involved with the talks, the sources said.
The dangers were laid bare by two recent near misses between planes that were blamed on conflicting air traffic control rights. Earlier this year, two commercial aircraft flew too close, and in 2018 a FedEx plane nearly collided with two Korean low-cost carrier jets.
"The risk posed by the current configuration is known, and generally well mitigated," said one source. "However, mistakes can happen, and two errors, one in 2018 and another in 2019, highlighted this concern. The three (countries) agreed they needed to work together to address the issue proactively."
The present arrangements were drawn up in 1983, when South Korea had no diplomatic relations with China, and there were only around 10 flights a day in the corridor.
Since then, the corridor has become one of the busiest portions of airspace in the Asia-Pacific region, with 800 flights daily. The ICAO recognised the urgent need to streamline traffic control as the corridor is expected to become even busier next year as Japan prepares to receive more traffic ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the sources said.
Under the new deal, Japan will benefit from an additional air route, one of the sources said.
A deal could lead to further additional routes, with an airway between China and Korea to be discussed after the Olympics, both sources said.
"The gains are different for each, but all share in that," said the first source. "Bottom line - it's a safer configuration with room for growth."
Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said the prospective changes would help capacity and operational efficiency.
ICAO and the Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) of China could not be reached immediately for comment. An official at South Korea's transport ministry said it had raised the air traffic control issue with ICAO and remained in negotiations with Japan.
An official at Japan's transport ministry said his country was discussing the AKARA corridor with other countries in accordance with ICAO principles.© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.