EU’s air traffic reform plan draws fire from airlines

An Aer Lingus plane, Ireland's national flag carrier, lands at Frankfurt Airport, Germany, 16 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/THORSTEN WAGNER]

Global airlines have criticised the European Union’s recently agreed position on air traffic management reform, arguing it hampers much-needed improvements to Europe’s sclerotic air transport system.

The International Aviation Transport Association (IATA), a body representing international airlines, said the EU position will “entrench the failure of monopoly air navigation service providers to tackle emissions, delays and costs”.

Last week, the EU’s 27 member states agreed a ‘general approach’ on the reform of the Single European Sky initiative 2+ (SES) – an in-depth review of air traffic management systems.

The agreement, struck during a meeting of the Transport Council on 3 June, aims to simplify air traffic management in Europe, improve safety, and respond to growing capacity needs, while also trying to reduce aviation’s CO2 footprint.

But IATA described the Council’s approach as “conservative and nationalistic” and urged members of the European Parliament, who will consider the legislation in the coming weeks, to back the European Commission’s initial proposals.

“Air transport has the opportunity to build back better from the pandemic and turbo-charge a recovery in jobs and economic growth. The aim of the [Single European Sky reforms] should be to support these aims, not protect failing monopoly air traffic control businesses,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe.

For decades, attempts by the European Commission to reform European air traffic management has faced opposition from member states wary of ceding control over their skies.

Enacting the SES will lead to one million additional jobs and bring in billions thanks to optimised airspace, IATA predicts. The European Commission also estimates that improved route efficiency could lower emissions by up to 10%.

Currently, inter-EU flights pass through a range of air navigation jurisdictions – known as Functional Airspace Blocs (FABs) – that often force pilots to take circuitous routes, pushing up journey times, costs, and emissions.

The EU executive is pushing for a more integrated, centralised approach to air traffic management, including the creation of a separate entity for economic oversight, which would give regulators the power to enforce performance targets.

The proposal also seeks to strengthen the role of the pan-European Network Manager – currently air traffic agency EUROCONTROL – to enhance route efficiency.

The Commission additionally plans to base usage charges on environmental impact and offer airlines an incentive to fly greener aircraft.

However, while the Council stated it wishes to see greater efficiency, it argued such oversight should remain with member states.

A4E, an industry body representing European airlines, said the Council’s approach “shows that state sovereignty concerns continue to plague any real reform of the SES Regulation”.

The trade association condemned the Council’s rejection of a European economic regulator, which they say is a bid to ensure national-level control.

“As owners of the air navigation service providers, [national governments] will continue to be the ones deciding on target levels and the revenues they would like to achieve. This represents a clear conflict of interest,” A4E said in a statement.

MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, a member of the European Parliament’s transport committee, said the position indicates that while the Council is willing to sign statements in support of the reform, it is “very weak in implementing it”.

“They prefer the national approach to the European one,” Marinescu wrote in a Tweet.

Praise from unions

However, the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF), a trade union representing over 5 million employees, welcomed the stance taken by EU countries.

“The position adopted by the Council shows that member states, contrary to the Commission, do understand the purpose of the Air Traffic Management sector, which is to provide safety, not maximise profits,” said Charles-André Quesnel, ETF ATM Committee Chair.

“There is hope that the Air Traffic Management sector will not be further damaged, which is what was effectively going to happen if the Commission’s proposal remained unchanged,” he added.

If passed, the reform would likely lead to a reduction in the number of air traffic controllers, as some competences move from national air management agencies to centralised agencies. Unions have branded the drive for cost saving measures as an excuse to axe jobs in the sector.


Previous attempts to pass air traffic management reforms had been hindered by the long-running diplomatic dispute over the territorial status of Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory located in the south of Spain.

Spanish officials argued the land on which Gibraltar’s airport was constructed was never ceded to the UK, which the British government rejected.

The UK’s departure from the bloc removed a major barrier to an agreement, raising hopes within the Commission that the SES proposals will be adopted.

Corona-crisis and Brexit boost EU air traffic reform hopes

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.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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