The European Commission made a fresh bid to update the EU’s ageing air traffic management system on Tuesday (22 September), pinning its hopes of a long-overdue agreement on COVID-19’s impact on aviation and Brexit.
The ‘Single European Sky’ initiative (SES) – an in-depth review of air traffic management systems – has been blocked by EU member states for nearly two decades, as vested interests took precedence over reform.
An outdated patchwork of airspace blocs and inefficient flight paths impose significant financial and environmental costs on the sector. In 2019, delays came with a €6 billion price tag, while 11.6 million megatonnes of excess CO2 was emitted.
But the Commission has now published a fresh attempt to push through updates, seeking to capitalise on the cooling effect of the pandemic on air travel and the UK’s forfeiting of bloc membership, which ostensibly removes one stumbling block: Gibraltar.
The long-running diplomatic dispute over the British Overseas Territory between the UK and Spain spilled over into the SES talks, as Gibraltar’s airport is located on the isthmus between the Rock and Spanish territory.
Now that Brexit is in full swing and the UK is no longer an EU member, diplomats and officials are more confident that an agreement can be brokered.
EU transport chief Adina Vălean told reporters that now the file will no longer be blocked by the UK, “I trust the fact that the institutional process will be smoother.” She urged the European Parliament and Council to adopt the proposal as quickly as possible.
The removal of the Gibraltar issue from the talks could make a deal more likely, especially since the Commission is putting its faith in voluntary alliances between so-called air traffic service providers, rather than top-down regulation.
“We have learned lessons from what didn’t work in the past,” Vălean admitted, adding that the new strategy should help stimulate digital innovation in the sector.
The Romanian official also said that “In 2019, we saw overcrowding, in 2020 the collapse of air travel demand. We need an airspace that can handle both extremes.”
Airlines for Europe, the sector’s top trade association, welcome the Commission’s attempt to put SES back in the limelight but warned that “enhanced governance structure” will be crucial if the initiative is to be a success.
MEP Jan-Christoph Oetjen (Renew) said that the time is right to pursue an agreement, given the low air traffic volume caused by the pandemic, which “gives us the opportunity to modernise air traffic management”.
“This will create new foundations on which air traffic can resume, contributing to the implementation of the Green Deal in air transport,” the German lawmaker added.
A slower-than-expected recovery of passenger demand is throwing the aviation sector into further flux. According to regulator EUROCONTROL, current numbers are only 45% of the same period in 2019.
That has prompted carriers like Lufthansa to target further job cuts and plane retirements, while the aviation lobby continues to urge national governments to adopt harmonised travel requirements so passengers can travel with less hassle.
Spiking coronavirus case numbers and the genuine risk of a return to lockdown conditions means that the industry has a grim outlook for the time being.
A key advantage of successful SES reform that has been touted by the Commission and industry alike is that it could cut aviation’s carbon footprint by up to 10%.
Airlines currently have to navigate routes that have not changed for decades and are often left circling the skies burning fuel when traffic controllers go on strike or are at capacity. The new system, which dispenses with the airspace bloc model, should change that.
The Commission also plans to base usage charges on environmental impact and offer airlines an incentive to fly greener aircraft. This aspect could be challenged though by member states that cannot afford to upgrade their fleets.
Aviation is looking increasingly at how to clean up its act. Airbus revealed three concepts for hydrogen-fuelled aircraft on Monday (21 September) and is already working on new flying techniques that could reduce emissions by 10% per trip.
With the ‘fello’fly’ project, Airbus wants to mimic the behaviour of migratory birds like geese that fly in close formation, allowing the individuals at the rear of the ‘v’-shape to save energy and benefit from an updraft.
Under an agreement with Scandinavian airlines and air traffic controllers, Airbus will trial a similar concept with its planes and hopes to start transatlantic flights in close formation in 2021.
Smooth air traffic management is crucial to the project’s hopes of success so fingers will be firmly crossed at the aerospace giant’s Toulouse HQ that decision-makers finally agree to reform the creaking model.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]