EU’s single sky ambitions remain grounded by national air traffic jams

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This article is part of our special report Future of aviation: A quieter ride.

SPECIAL REPORT / Labour actions by French air traffic controllers who oppose longstanding EU plans to overhaul air traffic management demonstrate that efforts to improve aviation efficiency and reduce nuisances in Europe’s crowded airspace will not happen easily. EURACTIV reports from the Paris Air Show.

With air traffic in the EU expected to grow 50% by 2030, the European Commission has waged an uphill battle to get member states to live up to their agreement to implement the Single European Sky, or SES, to make air traffic control more competitive and replace a network of national systems with regional traffic management.

Most national governments missed a December 2012 deadline to implement a key provision of SES, the creation of functional airspace blocks, or FABs, that are to consolidate national air control into regional operations.

Trade unionists in France and several other countries who led protests on 11 and 12 June contend the plan will cost jobs and compromise safety.

The aviation industry and environmental groups, however, have formed an unusual alliance to support EU commitments to create FABs on grounds that improved coordination could lead to cleaner, quieter and more punctual air travel.

“Controllers are very conservative,” a French industry official whose business works on SES-related contracts told EURACTIV at the Paris Air Show, where aircraft makers and suppliers this week are touting technologies they say reduce noise and pollution. “And for national governments, there are problems with money and political will.”

Aviation’s traffic cops

Technological developments that have improved aerodynamic design and created quieter engines play a leading role in reducing the environmental footprint of aviation. Yet traffic management has a no less significant role: The traffic cops of airspace can ensure more direct routing and reduce the amount of time airplanes spend over populous areas on their approach to landing.

Andrew Watt, head of environment at Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based civil-military air traffic management and safety organisation, says “performance can be enhanced from the cross-border perspective in that you are losing the concept of national airspace, not necessarily sovereignty over the airspace, but you start to have cross-border air traffic control.”

“Everyone is trying to make the whole system more efficient to be able to cope with increasing numbers of traffic while improving safety levels even further, to be able to generate the capacity, improve safety and reduce environmental impact per flight,” he said in a telephone interview.

Eurocontrol is working in EU nations and 12 other participating countries to reduce the impact of aviation nuisances like noise through changes in landing patterns, so that aircraft spend less time cruising at lower altitudes before they land. The approach from higher altitudes reduces fuel consumption and means people living along flight paths are exposed to less noise since aircraft remain at higher altitudes longer.

Deeper coordination could also allow more direct routing. Airlines say their passengers would benefit from reduced travel times and while the aircraft themselves would spend less time in the air burning jet fuel. The European Commission estimates that the lack of regionalised traffic management adds 42 kilometres to the typical flight.

Industry vs. unions

The Association of European Airlines, a Brussels-based industry group, said delays in the Single European Sky cost companies €14 million per day in higher fuel costs and contribute to higher carbon emissions, which the industry is obliged to reduce.

The amount is not insignificant in an industry struggling to remain profitable. European airlines have been among the hardest hit financially in recent years, with revenues trailing the global average. The International Air Transport Association estimates that net profits for European airlines will top $1.6 billion (€1.2 billion) in 2013, compared to $4.4 billion in North American and $4.6 billion for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region.

As the French controllers went on strike, causing flight delays and cancellations across Europe, European Commission Vice President Siim Kallas renewed calls for EU countries to live up to their obligation under a 2009 agreement to incorporate national control operations into nine FABs.

Kallas, the commissioner in charge of transport, has repeatedly lashed out at governments for failing to act and called for an update to the SES, known as SES2+. The proposal came six months after the commissioner conceded that ambitious plans to consolidate national air traffic control into a regionalised system were being hampered by national inaction despite years of planning.

"Our airlines and their passengers have had to endure more than 10 years of reduced services and missed deadlines on the route to a Single European Sky,” Kallas told a news conference in Brussels.

“We cannot afford to continue this way. Today we are strengthening the nuts and bolts of the system so it can withstand more pressure and deliver ambitious reforms even in difficult economic times,” he said. “We need to boost the competitiveness of the European aviation sector and create more jobs in the airlines and at airports".

In response, the European Transport Workers’ Federation accused the Commission of trying to put “the economic stability of the sector at risk by introducing competition, liberalisation and more and more market principles.”

The French action was backed by union affiliates in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.

The Association of European Airlines, a Brussels-based industry group, said as controllers unions took action on 11-12 June: “Instead of industrial actions and counterproductive confrontation, which will severely penalise European air passengers, airspace users call for a clear commitment by all stakeholders, including states, to work together to achieve the successful and timely implementation of the Single European Sky," the group said in a statement. "There is a real need to address this situation urgently: solutions exist but they require a real political and institutional impulse.”

Riccardo Rubini, who heads the trade unions’ Air Traffic Management Committee at the European Transport Workers’ Federation, said in a statement on 11 June: “We reject a performance scheme dominated by cost reduction that mainly aims to cut on jobs,” “It puts safety in the European sky only as a second priority, in favour of the economic aspects, and such an approach is unacceptable.

The Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, an international group representing air traffic management companies, on 20 June called on governments to adopt global measures to mitigate the environmental impact of aviation.

Speaking from the CANSO Global ATM Summit in the Caribbean island of Curacao, CANSO Director General Jeff Poole said: “CANSO and its members are committed to the aviation industry four-pillar strategy of: improved technology; more efficient aircraft operations; infrastructure improvements, including modernised air traffic management systems; and market-based measures, to fill the remaining emissions gap. The air traffic management industry is playing its part by improving efficiency so aircraft can fly optimal and fuel-efficient routes. We have already made significant progress in implementing new procedures that improve efficiency, save fuel and reduce emissions.”

First proposed in 2004 and established in 2009, the functional airspace blocks – or FABs - were enthusiastically backed by member states and the aviation industry. The deadline for compliance was 4 December 2012.

These nine FABS would gradually reduce the 68 air traffic control centres in the 31 controls that now monitor the 28,000 flights a day in European airspace.

The FABs include EU and non-EU countries and could eventually incorporate nations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as a way to reduce flight delays and provide more direct routing to save fuel. Whereas Europeans can now move freely on the ground within the Schengen area, airspace guidance is still largely divided by national boundaries.

  • 17-23 June: 50th International Paris Air Show

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