EU completes ‘Single Sky’ airspace shake-up

Cheaper airline tickets, shorter flight times, less pollution and no more air borders: these are the expected benefits of the ‘Single European Sky II’ package of legislation adopted by the European Parliament yesterday (25 March).

The European Parliament approved the second ‘Single European Sky’ (SES II) package in a plenary vote yesterday after an agreement had been reached last week between EU transport ministers (EURACTIV 23/02/09).

SES II consists of two regulations aimed at improving the performance of the European aviation system in key areas such as safety, capacity, flight, cost efficiency and environmental sustainability, by coordinatinating and supervising member states’ air traffic control systems and implementing common rules and performance targets. 

Functional air blocks

Building a network of direct air routes and boosting the efficiency of air traffic control by creating functional air blocks (FABs) will bring about shorter flight times, reduce kerosene consumption and create less pollution thanks to lower CO2 emissions, MEPs said. Flights will be quicker and cheaper thanks to shorter routes and lower air taxes in each country, they added.

The initial European Commission proposal was improved by MEPs, who opted to appoint a system coordinator for FABs. The coordinator will facilitate agreements between member states, speed up the unification process of the Single European Sky and clarify the concept of common projects, including the designation of funding sources.

International flights currently have to pass through national air traffic control zones or ‘blocks’, which involves being passed from one national authority to another. This system leads to bottlenecks and delays, forcing aircraft to consume more fuel and jeopardising safety. Around nine European FABs have so far been designed – including a single UK-Ireland zone – but it is felt that insufficient progress has been made.

Completing the Single European Sky II package is one of the priorities of the French and Czech EU Presidencies. Savings of over €2 billion are envisaged, taking into account the current state of the aviation sector and the significant potential for long-term savings.

Two Parliamentary reports on the issue were adopted by a large majority: 614 votes in favour, 47 against and 24 abstentions for one on ‘performance and sustainability of the European aviation system’. A report on ‘aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services’ was passed with 662 votes in favour, 20 against and 11 abstentions.

A new high-tech IT communication system inaugurated on 23 March in Maastricht by Eurocontrol follows the philosophy behind the establishment of a Single European Sky (EURACTIV 25/03/09). 

"By 2012, we will have a Schengen of the sky. Flight routes will be shorter, air traffic control more efficient, and air navigation will be optimised and integrated. As a direct consequence, less fuel will be burned and emissions would decrease significantly - all of these changes should bring a reduction in the price of tickets. With this agreement with the Council, the SES II is a step forward in strengthening Europe - a predictable step after the common market, the euro and the Schengen area," said Marian-Jean Marinescu MEP, rapporteur on the file and vice-chairman of the EPP-ED  group, during the plenary.

"We are sending a strong signal to our citizens, those working in the aviation sector and the industry itself. These proposals lead to a modernisation of air traffic management, which will render air transport more feasible, more sustainable and safer," said Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani  during the debate in Strasbourg.

British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope commented: "A lack of coordination between national air traffic controllers too often forces planes to travel further than necessary and can create safety problems. Let us hope now that the regulator can finally get its act together by making sure this scheme is a success." 

Despite a series of regulations adopted in March 2004, aimed at reforming the current air traffic management system and creating the Single European Sky (SES), EU airspace remains broadly divided into 27 different systems under the control of national governments.

This fragmentation forces airlines to zig-zag between 27 different airspaces - each serviced by a different air navigation service provider on the basis of different rules and requirements - making them fly further and thus increasing emissions and costs for operators.

Due to lack of progress on the 2004 regulations, the European Commission put forward, in June 2008, a second legislative package  to overcome the "numerous hurdles" encountered when trying to integrate European airspace. 

  • June 2012: Implementation deadline for SES II.

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