To maintain world leadership, the EU aeronautics industry must not rest on its laurels, but rather seek to increase funding in research and development and team up with universities to produce the high-skilled workers needed to face up to global competition.
Speaking at Aeroweek in Brussels, Domingo Ureña-Raso, CEO of EADS-CASA and president of the association representing the aerospace sector, noted that the industry and the EU stand at a crossroads.
"Europe must choose between making the necessary efforts in research and development to maintain the leadership of its aerospace sector or standing still, taking the success for granted and getting exposed to rising competition from emerging aerospace powers," he said.
The aerospace industry generates a turnover of €100 billion and employs nearly half a million highly-skilled professionals. The sector is one of the most R&D-intensive in Europe, investing more than 12% of its turnover in research and development.
"Aeronautical technologies are a catalyst for innovation," added Patrick Ky, executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, the technological component of the so-called Single European Sky, which aims to reform the current air traffic management (ATM) system.
Due largely to a spillover effect from developments in many other sectors, the investments made in the aerospace industry are crucial to boosting Europe's competitiveness in other fields. It is indeed well-known that some of the technology used in wind turbines comes from the aerospace industry.
Public-private partnerships revisited
In past years, the European Union has launched various initiatives to decarbonise air travel and boost technology-driven innovation in aerospace. It did so by launching partnerships with industry.
The 'Clean Sky' initiative launched in 2008 as a €1.6 billion public-private partnership has helped the air transport industry to develop environmentally-friendly aeroplanes.
With the present economic crisis and governments struggling to control debt, public-private partnerships are essential, but aerospace companies still feel the EU has not placed aviation among its priorities or developed new funding models.
In a manifesto presented yesterday at Aeroweek, industry association ASD called on the EU not only to come up with an industrial policy for aeronautics, but also to support the deployment of SESAR, addressing all aspects of its funding. ASD also wants to see aerospace included in the 8th Framework Programme with dedicated funds.
"The continuing availability of these funds under Framework Programme 8 (FP8) is an overarching priority, and using this money effectively is more important than ever," said an aerospace executive, noting that the industry retains an impressive track record of forward-looking innovation based on research breakthroughs that contribute to giving Europe a competitive edge in the sector.
Budget: New challenge ahead
While some policymakers were quick to point to the difficulty of negotiations on the next EU budget, talking of a period of uncertainty for EU funding, Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas urged industry leaders to make their voices heard at national level.
Kallas noted that in the United States, President Barack Obama took the NextGen programme, the American equivalent of SESAR, under his wing and was proud to earmark $50 billion in initial funding for the programme in his new infrastructure investment plan.
According to Kallas, such investment in Europe would require the approval of too many actors. "We can remove barriers," the commissioner said, hinting that such investment would need the agreement of all partners, including member states.
Speaking at Aeroweek, UK Labour MEP Brian Simpson, chair of the European Parliament's transport committee, said the budget negotiations would be challenging, with countries like France, Germany and Italy opposed to increasing SESAR's budget, for example.
More than lack of money, the industry needs a renewed partnership. "All stakeholders need to agree on priorities," said SESAR's Ky.
Making engineering 'glamorous'
Decision-makers made clear that money is not the only challenge. Making engineering and science a "glamorous" career for young people needs additional efforts from all stakeholders, universities and companies included.
"Back in the 1970s we were able to attract the best students because they thought it was glamorous to become an engineer, now they find more attractive working for Google, L'Oreal or BMW," SESAR executive director noted, compared to a totally different scenario in the US.
MEP Simpson agreed and argued that interest in science should start from an earlier age. Schools should focus more on maths and science, he said.