Europe’s air traffic project needs a strong leader

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Europe’s ambition to create a Single European Sky needs a central figure who can ensure compliance and break down barriers to improving air traffic management, writes Simon McNamara.

Simon McNamara is director-general of the European Regions Airline Association.

The air traffic management (ATM) in Europe is long overdue for reform and, despite considerable efforts by policymakers, progress towards real reform remains elusive.

ATM is essential to the aviation industry – the airline industry relies on ATM in the same way that the rail industry relies on track infrastructure and the haulage industry relies on roads. Lack of adequate infrastructure in the aviation industry results in flight delays, cancellations and unnecessary fuel burn – not good for passengers, airlines or the environment.

A desire for a more efficient and cost effective air traffic system in Europe is nothing new, but achieving it has been fraught with problems. Delivering new efficiencies has been an elusive goal for almost the last 20 years and, despite successive attempts to introduce reforms, it sometimes feels as if the end goal is still some distance away.

However, the building blocks are in place. ATM can be delivered more cheaply and more efficiently but there is considerable duplication across Europe. Each state replicates hardware and processes to control its own state airspace, despite the fact that European airspace should be a single seamless infrastructure.

So why is reform taking so long? There are many reasons why solutions, whether technology or the introduction of European performance targets, have either been watered down or rejected. These are often due to politics and a reluctance to consolidate what are still, in many cases, state-run entities that provide Europe's air traffic services. States are very reluctant to release their airspace sovereignty and unions are concerned about the impact of reform on employment – failing to understand that reform could have a positive, rather than negative, impact on the job market.

But there has been progress. SESAR, the Single European Sky ATM research programme, is coordinating both research and development for ATM with the intention of achieving harmonised technology solutions that will be of benefit to everyone. However, delivery of SESAR is reaching a critical time and it is essential that these benefits are seen. The European Commission has proposed and, following co-decision, introduced legislation on the Single European Sky that has allowed European performance targets to be set in the areas of cost effectiveness and capacity.

While states still seem reluctant to set ambitions targets that will drive real change these and other hurdles must be overcome. Perhaps what has been missing most from the project is a single leadership focus. The most successful ventures and projects have always been led by an individual or entity that has been driven by a simple sense of purpose to deliver. Someone who can rise above day-to-day conflicts, look beyond short-term politics and find solutions.

Maybe what the SES lacks is a chief executive officer. The project has no single leader – instead, we have a series of personalities, politicians and committees who are all, with the best of intentions, contributing to delivering a solution but who collectively lack a single sense of purpose and vision.

A recent conversation about SES provoked the very telling comment: “There are plenty of officers on the bridge, but who is in command?” Now is the time for a leader to step forward and take the project to its logical conclusion. And it must be sooner rather than later.