What Urban Planning needs to learn from Civil Aviation

Land is scarce but sky has no limits!

You might think that the two fields have nothing in common. One deals with the spaces and activities on ground whereas the latter deals with the never-ending air space as sky has no limits! This is the general perception and true superficially. If one study town planning and familiarizes himself or herself with commercial aviation sector, they will come out to be very much similar in their functionality. The only and stark difference remains in the implementation of the rules ultimately getting the things done at ground level. This is where planning is nowhere to be seen.

Similarity in the needs Urban Planning & Civil Aviation

Both the sectors needs high level of sophistication and need to make use of best available technology. Highest level of coordination and real-time data and information sharing is another necessity. The differences and similarities will be explained with use of examples to make them easy to understand for people associated with both domains.


Irrespective of the scale of work (layout plan, master plan, regional plan, economic plan) the data requirements are huge. This data and required information needs to be collected from different authorities and agencies which might be working together or independently. They may or may not be controlled by government and thus acquiring information from them will result in substantial expenditure. Since planning is not a new-born profession and its been some decades it has gained importance in some parts of World, there now exist specialized and dedicated departments working to meet the requirements of planning. These include town planning or urban planning department, data collection and assimilation units, making use of census data, need based data collection and sharing with transport authorities, municipalities and other civic bodies etc. Inspite of this planning remains distant from achieving the desired goals. There is lack of coordination among departments, lack of data, outdated data, unavailability of information, lack of expertise, lack of political will and influence (reasons are not a concern here). The direct and indirect cost incurred is paid by everyone which most of the time Is not reflected immediately.
In Aviation, a similar need of data and information exist which needs to be collected from number of concerned agencies working independently and under government. The difference remains in terms of data collected. This includes the information about the lengths of runways, weather data like wind velocity, mean direction, turbulence, types and location of clouds, routes with bad weather, distance between origin and destinations, fuel requirements and availability, access to medical and emergency facilities, real-time information about other traffic etc. Without having the sufficient data it is impossible for an aircraft to take-off. In case of any error/ mistake the results are seen immediately unlike planning. The news of crash or aborted landing starts flashing on all the news channel and a team is formed immediately to inspect the incident/accident.

Flexibility at different stages

Both the sectors have provision of corrections or adjustments in case it is evident that the desired result is not achievable or continuing the ongoing work will have negative or catastrophic results. In planning feedback and monitoring was added to the planning process under rational planning model. This provided some flexibility to the otherwise rigid planning process whose outcomes were visible only after things went wrong at end. These outcomes were at times disastrous as millions of people by this time would have suffered because of faulty planning. With the advancement and adoption of technology this improved and the time required to assess and rectify the mistake became possible. Now the corrections can be made at a much early stage to minimize the negative outcomes.
In aviation also things do go wrong. This can be because of both human error or technical glitches. Both of these are unpredictable but having a mechanism in place to minimize the damage remains to be of utmost importance. Safety in aviation is given utmost priority unlike planning. The operational standards for commercial airline transport aircraft include machine failure of order 1 in a million and 1 in a billion. No such standards or any stringent provision exist in case of Planning. In case things go wrong at starting the skills of crew, presence of safety equipment, support provided by ground staff and other nearby aircraft, a dedicated search and rescue team ensures that damage is minimized. No deliberate attempt to delay any procedure is acceptable. All the concerned people and agencies swiftly takes action with minimalist unavoidable delay.

International umbrella body and national divisions 

No international umbrella body exist for urban planning. The standards adopted and functions performed varies from country to country and even within a country. No provision or need exists to detail out the practices being followed in a region. A person willing to work in a new place needs to get well versed with the system being followed by actually working and learning the practice being followed. This makes it problematic and time-consuming for a person to work in new place. No international body exist to unify the practices however in some countries there are governing bodies which work at different level but their success varies largely. Some of the founding and old bodies include American Planning Association (APA), Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Indian Institute of Town Planners (ITPI), Nigerian Institute of Town Planners (NITP) etc. All of these governing bodies enjoy different rights where they work. Commonwealth Association of Planners can be considered as a pseudo international organisations but on looking at the work and influence it fails to fulfill the criteria required to qualify itself as a true international umbrella body.
International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is the apex umbrella body for civil aviation. It is a UN specialized agency, established by States in 1944 to manage the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention). The rules framed by ICAO are binding for all members although there exists the provision to adopt rules complete or partially but in case of partial adoption, the changes from international practice needs to be informed so that all the countries have complete inform about the standards and procedures being followed in other countries.
Apart from a single governing body, all countries have their own organisations and concerned authorities dealing with civil aviation. Unlike planning, its mandatory to have a competent authority which will represent the country in conventions of ICAO and pass on the required information from time to time. These include Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Director General of Civil Aviation etc. These further have their sub divisions and coordinate among Number of other bodies to make sure the all the civil aviation operations go smoothly.

After things go wrong

In Aviation, reporting to competent authority is compulsory within a said time-frame for anything which went wrong. A well-defined classification as “incident” for relatively less serious mishaps and “accident” for serious mishaps ensures that nothing goes unreported. As soon as the information about mishap is received, investigation team starts its work. Person responsible or even merely present at time are interrogated. Pilot’s licence gets suspended and the crew is grounded till the investigation is complete. The person/s responsible is prosecuted.
In case of planning, the problem starts with the identifying “what went wrong” but the final report is generally never finished. The lack of standards and reference makes it unrealistic to call the outcome as undesired and to quantify it. Unless a proper assessment is possible, it makes no sense to identify the person or agency responsible for it The margins of errors are absent in most of the cases and similarly the acceptance level of deviation from the set goals. In case by any method some people or a department can be identified, there exist the problem of overlapping or lack of detailed function or some other loophole which will prevent from any strict action being taken. This further gets complicated as the outcome is visible only after few years and planning itself is prone to drastic changes due to external factors. Accountability in true sense can’t be established without very refined procedures and rules.

Accountability and actions taken

Having a clear and well-defined structure is essential for any task which requires input from multiple sources. Avoiding overlapping functions and identification of gaps is of utmost importance in efficient working. Accountability for delays and wrong information needs to be taken seriously to do quality work and this requires continuous and timely evaluation. Having standards and fix procedures helps in ensuring that minimalist deviations occur from the set rules. This is what makes Aviation a rapidly growing sector.
Urban planning on the other hand is dominated by “Guidelines” instead of rules. Number of overlapping functions, conflicts in administrative work and boundaries, lack of penalties. No well-defined standards or complete lack of standards makes assessment next to impossible. This results to serious issues and questions over the quality of work. Further, because of the scattered authorities it is difficult to find out the actual person/department who is responsible for the loss. Even if the concerned person is found out than the overlapping functions or the lack of clear procedure of what to do next will be at disposal to save the person/department from facing and serious actions. As a result no one gets punished except people for whom planning was being done. In such cases people become victims of wrong or ill-defined process and part of experimentation.

Data sharing and updating

The data requirements in planning is largely dependent on the secondary data collection. Plans being prepared get most of the required information by indirect means and thus at mercy of other departments. This is unfortunate but true in most parts of the world. Very few dedicated data collection takes place which is meant solely for planning because of the fact that there is very little need to conduct surveys again. The problem lies in making the existing data available for the concerned planning agency. The data thus gets updated at discretion of “other” fields for which data was originally collected. This results in delay or highly unreliable data for planning purposes. But this remains to be the only option available, sort of best out of trash in some cases. The frequency of updating this data ranges from days, weeks, months, years and even a decade in some cases. To list some examples, traffic volume count data is collected several times a month/year depending on the need and place. This collection is relatively easy and less tedious. But census data is updated at interval of 5 years in some countries, in 10 years in most of the countries and even more in some cases. This very basic demographic information is too often outdated if used as it is without care. Information about pollution and environmental changes might be unavailable or last updated decades ago.
In case of Aviation no delay can take place in obtaining the data. All the data collection needs to be done before hand, no take-off is possible without the crucial information. Thus for a successful and uninterrupted operations data needs to be collected and disseminated in almost real-time. This collection and sharing in done within and outside the geographical boundaries of a region. Some of the data is updated periodically and needs to be checked before starting of flights. In case of any unexpected or sudden change notices (NOTAM) is issued which needs to be checked. This ensures highest level of safety and awareness about the complete work. The collection and distribution of data also needs to be free from errors and negligible error is acceptable. All this comes at a good monetary cost but it is available and can be accessed by paying the required amount. The cost is high because of the perfection in the data collection and the responsibility of the data provider.