The decision by EU transport ministers aims to kick-start the five-year development phase of the SESAR project – the technological component of bloc's 'Single Sky' programme – in a bid to provide a more modern, efficient, safer and greener air traffic management system.
European airlines welcomed the move, saying European ATM inefficiency was estimated to cost the airline industry €5 billion a year – "an unaffordable figure at the best of times and a crippling burden during the ongoing industry crisis," according to Peter Hartman, CEO of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and current chairman of the Association of European Airlines (AEA).
He added that the amount of CO2 emissions which could be avoided by an efficient system was "a staggering 16 million tonnes annually, a huge step towards the industry's environmental objective of carbon-neutral growth".
Speaking at a seminar organised by the Commission on 8 October, EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani had underscored the urgency of updating Europe's air control system "first and foremost for the wellbeing of our citizens," but also as a means of cutting airlines' fuel bills and preserving the environment by reducing emissions.
"We cannot accept any delay in the adoption of the [single sky] package," he stressed, adding that ever-growing air transport demand had "completely overwhelmed" the current system.
The aim of the second package, presented by the Commission in July, is to speed up implementation of the single sky, notably by setting a binding target date of 2012 for member states to establish cross-border cooperation by setting up so-called 'functional airspace blocks' (FABs ). Under this scheme – already established under the first package of single sky legislation – two or more countries can agree to integrate their upper airspace and designate a single service provider to control air traffic in that block.
Parliament to seek more ambition on single sky
But, speaking at the same conference, French Socialist MEP Gilles Savary, who is also vice president of the European Parliament's transport committee, immediately highlighted MEPs' concerns that the Commission had failed to move away from its "bottom-up" approach, whereby it is left to member states to decide on how to restructure.
"The European Parliament considers that the 'bottom-up' approach has not worked and […] questions the legitimacy of a second package based on this same base," said Savary.
According to him, sensitive issues such as sovereignty, the evaluation of progress on FABs and the introduction of penalties mean that the dossier "will lead to in-depth debate" and may not be agreed in first reading.
But airlines and airports are pleading with the EU to move the dossier forward as soon as possible. The current situation represents a "Europe-wide problem with only losers," stressed the AEA's Hartman.
Airline fury over emissions trading plans
The industry further lashed out at the EU for having taken so much time to implement SES in the first place, saying discussions had been ongoing since the 1960s whereas "it took us only one and a half years to create a European Trading Scheme for aviation".
According to Hartman, the benefits of including aviation in the EU's cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions will have only a "questionable impact" on the environment, while the SES would bring "demonstrable benefits". What's more, he stressed: "Without the Single Sky, we would be required to buy permits for the fuel we waste flying zigzag routings and holding patterns caused by airspace inefficiencies."
The industry thus lambasted the European Parliament's environment committee for having voted in favour of proposals that would force airlines to pay for 20% of their pollution permits after 2013 – a figure that would rise each year until full auctioning in 2020. Other industries will only have to pay for 15% initially.
"These latest amendments to the ETS no longer treat aviation as 'just another industry' – they actually actively seek to bully it," commented Airports Council International (ACI Europe) Director General Olivier Jankovec. ACI Europe spokesman Robert O'Meara told EurActiv the industry was "startled" by the vote, which was in total contradiction with earlier plans to include aviation in the ETS (EurActiv 09/07/08).
"We have the impression that some MEPs are so dogmatic that they have lost touch with reality," said AEA Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, pointing to the major impact that the financial crisis and soaring oil prices were already having on the airline industry.
EU to push for third-country participation in ETS
But transport ministers yesterday confirmed that "despite the unfavourable conjuncture linked to the raise in fuel prices, aviation sector growth will likely be higher than the rate of emission reductions resulting from technological performances". An emissions trading scheme is therefore "justified". Nevertheless, they called on the Commission to press countries outside the EU to participate in the ETS in a bid to create a more level playing field for European airlines.