The European Commission today (25 November) warned that most EU countries are failing to improve and modernise regional air traffic management, contributing to delays that are blamed for higher travel costs and pollution.

Nearly all EU nations are falling short of commitments made under the Single European Sky initiative to boost trans-boundary air traffic control by 2012.

Making flying more efficient is seen as critical for environmental and financial reasons, but also to address demand growth: the number of passenger flights rises 5% annually across Europe and is expected to hit 17 million per year by 2030.

Vice-President Siim Kallas, the transport commissioner, said 2012 is “a make or break year” after the Commission issued a report on the single-sky initiative.

"There is a genuine risk that we will lag behind and find ourselves unable to satisfy the rising demands of air travel, which is set to nearly double by 2030", Kallas said.

The Single European Sky plan, which dates to 1999 and has been revamped since, calls for establishing cross-border cooperation through functional airspace blocks (FABs) that are designed to get nations working together on air traffic control. It would improve on the current system where airplanes bounce between ground controllers whenever they enter another nation’s airspace – costing time and creating potential confusion.

Leaders and laggards

There are nine European FABs. But according to the EU executive, most of these aren’t working. Denmark and Sweden, forming one of the blocks, are closest to meeting the 2012 targets. Five EU countries – Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg - plus Switzerland and those that form a Central and Western control area are trailing the rest of Europe in progress.

“These blocks are essential for generating real benefits to airspace users and passengers by delivering cost savings and capacity enhancements,” the EU executive said in its report.

Overall, the Commission says only Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are track to meeting EU targets for meeting broader goals of modernising and improving traffic management, cutting delays.

Some of the initiatives date back to the 1990s when the EU worked to improve continental cooperation, but more recent efforts at organising air traffic management irrespective of national borders are seen as improving safety, environmental sustainability, capacity, cost-efficiency, and on-time flight performance.

Pressure for such measures grew following the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in spring 2010 that caused days of chaos and massive losses for airlines and exposed the hotchpotch nature of Europe’s air traffic control.

Blaming game

Some airline organisations have blamed the EU for pumping disproportionate amounts of investments into railways that account for just 12% of Europe’s passenger services, while airlines handle some 1.4 billion passengers annually on 26,000 daily flights.

The European Regions Airline Association recently made public a report challenging the cost benefits of some investments in high-speed rail, saying European railways have an unfair advantage over airlines in that much of the infrastructure costs are publicly financed.

“There is a blatant bias toward rail,” Simon McNamara, deputy director general of ERA, told EurActiv. “The scales are tipped in that mode’s favour and we think that needs to be corrected, and we hope this study will start that process.”

In its report released yesterday, the Commission found:

  • A “low level” of monitoring of navigation air traffic service providers;
  • A “considerable lack of interoperability of air navigation systems” between countries and “barriers to the mobility” of air traffic controllers;
  • Continued fragmentation in equipment and technology.