European officials conceded on Tuesday (4 December) that ambitious plans to consolidate national air traffic control into a regionalised system has failed, hampered by national inaction despite years of planning.
First proposed in 2004 and established in 2009, the functional air blocks – or FABs - were enthusiastically backed by member states and the aviation industry. The deadline for compliance was 4 December.
These nine FABS would gradually reduce the 68 air traffic control centres in the 31 controls that now monitor the 28,000 flights a day in European airspace.
The FABs include EU and non-EU countries and could eventually incorporate nations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as a way to reduce flight delays and provide more direct routing to save fuel. Whereas Europeans can now move freely on the ground within the Schengen area, airspace guidance is still largely divided by national boundaries.
Siim Kallas, the European Commission vice president in charge of transport, vowed to take “every possible action” to enforce the eight-year-old agreement after many countries missed Tuesday’s deadline for merging national air traffic control space into nine functional air blocks.
The so-called FABs are part of the broader Single European Sky (SES) initiative aimed at consolidating and modernising air traffic control in the EU and neighbouring nations.
Kallas said eliminating the today’s hotchpotch system would save airlines €5 billion annually because they could fly more direct routes.
“At a time of economic crisis we cannot afford to live with the status quo,” Kallas said. “Right now the implementation of the reform of Europe's airspace is falling seriously behind. FABs are the cornerstone of the Single European Sky infrastructure and a critical deadline has been missed. There is no other option but to strongly enforce EU law."
Aviation industry officials have voiced frustration at the slow progress in integrating national air traffic zones into FABs.
They have pointed the finger at governments – including Germany and France – for failing to live up to their obligations under the SES project that dates to the 1990s and led to agreement on creation of the FABs in 2004. At the time, EU national governments strongly endorsed the concept of creating more coherence in air traffic control.
Turbulent times for industry
With Europe’s airline industry saddled with slow growth, mounting losses and high fuel costs, airlines have become more vocal, urging the European Commission and EU leaders to stick to their guns to make the FABs operational.
Lufthansa chief executive Christoph Franz, told the Association of European Airlines in a 24 May speech that he was “furious that the largest EU member states are simply not delivering” on their commitments.
The failure to implement FABs has also angered supporters in the European Parliament. Brian Simpson, who chairs the transport committee in the European Parliament, told a hearing in October that the Commission should be prepared to go to court action to compel governments to live up to their agreements under the SES.
“In my 25 years in this Parliament, I’ve never come across a more deceitful Council,” the British MEP told a committee hearing on 9 October. “They agree to do something and then don’t do it.”
Ecology groups like Transport and Environment also have endorsed efforts to end the partition of air traffic control along national lines, seeing it as a way to counter the growing rate of aviation emissions.
Kallas has advocated FABs as a way to control growing aviation emissions and to reduce fuel consumption as air traffic grows in the decades ahead.
The European Commission in turn has estimated that more seamless air travel could reap instant savings. Cutting flight delays by 30 seconds could save some €920 million through 2014, EU figures show, while reducing airline carbon emissions by up to 12% annually.
A patchwork of flight control
Currently, aircraft must be vectored along indirect routes to avoid crossing virtual borders or can face delays in hand-offs from one national controller to another. The Single European Sky would in effect erase some of those boundaries, with controllers handling regional blocks without regard to national airspace.
The European Commission has long acknowledged problems with the pace of the SES, especially in consolidating traffic management. A year ago, the Commission warned national governments that it was prepared to take “corrective measures” for failure to meet deadlines set under SES.
EU governments – along with Bosnia, Croatia, Norway and Switzerland – were to cooperate in regional groupings to create the nine FABs by 4 December. A programme to upgrade air traffic management, called SESAR, is being undertaken through Eurocontrol, an organisation that includes EU states and 12 other nations.
Only two of the nine European FABs were nominally functional and some countries by this fall, according to a report prepared for the European Parliament and some countries - including Spain and Portugal, which are due to share air traffic responsibilities in southwestern Europe, were dragging their feet in signing a cooperation agreement.
“The transport ministers don’t take it seriously,” Georg Jarzembowski, a German former MEP who has served as the EU’s FAB coordinator since July 2010, told a parliamentary hearing in October. “It’s a question of political will on the part of the transport ministers.”
Sovereignty issues as well as labour concerns are the main source of inaction, officials have said, with trade unions representing controllers resisting possible consolidation.
Some governments have also resisted allowing foreign controllers to handle air traffic over military installations.
A progress report Jarzembowski prepared for the Parliament shows:
- Denmark and Sweden have made the most progress in their FAB;
- Ireland and Britain are largely on course in their FAB cooperation;
- The Danube FAB (Romania and Bulgaria) and Baltic FAB (Poland and Lithuania) are partially compliant.
The following FABs were not ready and face “significant problems”:
- North European: Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Norway;
- Europe Central: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland;
- Central Europe: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Association of European Airlines, the European Low Fares Airline Association, the European Regions Airline Association and the International Air Carrier Association condemned EU member states for what they called the “reluctance to properly implement Functional Airspace Blocks, a key ingredient for the successful delivery of Single European Sky II.”
“Member states have failed to honour their obligations under the Single European Sky Regulation to properly implement FABs by the stipulated deadline of 4 December 2012. They have had eight years to comply with the regulation, yet they have not moved much further than the mere creation of FABs,” the statement said.
“We therefore urge Transport Commissioner Kallas to follow up on his warning to Member States at the EU Aviation Summit in Cyprus on 12 October 2012, and launch infringement procedures against defaulting states.”