Air-traffic plans are up in the air
Uniting the 27 national airspaces in the European Union into one block would save time, money and emissions, and has long been a goal of the European Commission. But eight years after the EU gained competence over air-traffic management, the project remains stalled.
The original intention was to establish one single airspace, as in the United States. The US’s air-traffic system has to deal with double the number of flights in the same airspace size as the EU, but does so at half the cost.
The problem in the EU is that airlines have to pay to use the airspace of each country they fly over. This means that airlines sometimes plan routes that fly over as few countries as possible, but this increases journey times and emissions. The Commission says that this inefficiency costs around €5 billion per year, and a great deal of that cost is passed on to passengers.
The ‘single European sky’ project ran into difficulties almost from the beginning. It soon became apparent that creating a single airspace would be a logistical nightmare, so it was decided instead to create eight ‘functional airspace blocks’, or FABs. Even this has proved difficult, with national air traffic authorities resisting the changes. Co-operation between national authorities has also proved problematic: the planned ‘North European’ block had to be split, and a ninth area was created, covering Sweden and Denmark. The FABs were supposed to be up and running by the end of last year.
Siim Kallas, the European commissioner for transport, did not pull his punches last year at a meeting of air-traffic controllers in Cyprus. “If member states continue to fail to deliver, who suffers? Passengers, businesses and the European economy,” he said. “Time is running out.”
The Commission believes that the current legislation is too weak. In the coming months it will propose a new measure, ‘Single European Sky 2+’. This would give greater powers to Eurocontrol, the international organisation that monitors European air-traffic control, would set stricter targets, and give the Commission greater scope to take action against member states that do not co-operate.
In December, the EU and Eurocontrol signed an agreement for enhanced co-operation. But the national authorities insist that the process is much more complex than the Commission is making out, and they cannot be expected to merge their operations overnight.
Unions have also objected to the pace of change, saying that it puts jobs at risk. “We are very concerned about this change in tone from the Commission,” says François Ballestero, head of civil aviation and tourism for the European Transport Workers Federation. “For ten years we have played the game, but today we feel that the Commission does not respect the air-traffic management industry and its workers. We have a feeling they now want a top-down approach that doesn’t respect subsidiarity.
“There is pressure from the airlines to move quickly, but this is…a sector…of general interest with public obligations for the member states. You cannot go into that sector like others with liberalisation efforts.”
But airlines say the timeframe set out by the Commission is realistic, and that air-traffic controllers are dragging their feet. “The concept of the single European sky is something we have been discussing in Europe for the last two or three decades; this isn’t something that suddenly surfaced,” says
Athar Husain Khan, secretary-general of the Association of European Airlines. “If you look at [the progress] in the last five to seven years, with all due respect, we hardly see any difference.”
Bernard Gustin, chief executive of Brussels Airlines, said at a public hearing earlier this month that “a more top-down approach led by the Commission and an effective sanction mechanism are needed to achieve the single European sky high-level goals”.
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Environmental groups have also criticised the member states’ failure to co-operate. “The airlines’ frustration is understandable,” says Bill Hemmings of green transport group T&E. “If they don’t make progress, emissions will be released that don’t need to be released, so that’s an issue where member states need to be pushed harder.”