EU’s ambitions for green air traffic rules grounded

Control Tower and Virgin Atlantic_Copyright Heathrow Airports Ltd_600x400.jpg

This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.

SPECIAL REPORT / Europe’s plan to consolidate a patchwork of national air traffic control systems to reduce flight delays and boost environmental performance appears grounded for now, hampered by national governments’ inaction and fear of losing sovereignty. EURACTIV reports from the Farnborough Airshow.

Aviation officials have voiced frustration at the slow progress in integrating national air traffic control zones into regional blocks – an objective that was initially meant to be completed by the end of 2012.

They are now accusing governments – including Germany and France – of failing to live up to their obligations under the EU’s Single European Sky (SES) initiative.

'Getting nowhere' with governments

With Europe’s aviation industry saddled with slow growth and high fuel costs, airlines have become more vocal, urging the European Commission and EU leaders to stick to their December 2012 deadline to create nine ‘functional airspace blocks’, or FABs, that were proposed with much fanfare in 2004.

“With the member states, we are getting nowhere,” lamented Regula Dettling-Ott, Lufthansa’s vice president for European Affairs. Speaking at a meeting of transatlantic airlines and regulators last month, she complained that “the biggest single CO2 reduction project Europe has is not moving.”

Her boss, Lufthansa chief executive Christoph Franz, told the Association of European Airlines in a 24 May speech that he was “furious that the largest EU member states are simply not delivering” on their commitments.

Ecology groups like Transport and Environment have endorsed efforts to end the partition of air traffic control along national lines, seeing it as a way to counter the growing rate of aviation emissions.

Billions of euros at stake

There are more than environmental concerns at stake – the EU and airlines expect to invest upwards of €30 billion in modernising air traffic control.

The European Commission in turn has estimated that more seamless air travel could reap instant savings. Cutting flight delays by 30 seconds could save some €920 million between 2012 and 2014, EU figures show, while reducing airline carbon emissions by up to 12% annually.

Currently, aircraft must be vectored along indirect routes to avoid crossing virtual borders or can face delays in hand-offs from one national controller to another. The Single European Sky (SES) would in effect erase some of those boundaries, with controllers handling regional blocks without regard to national airspace.

The European Commission has long acknowledged problems with the pace of its Single Sky initiative, especially in consolidating traffic management. Last November, the Commission warned national governments that it was prepared to take “corrective measures” for failure to meet deadlines set under SES.

EU governments – along with Bosnia, Croatia, Norway and Switzerland – are to cooperate in regional groupings to create the nine FABs by 4 December. A programme to upgrade air traffic management, called SESAR, is being undertaken through Eurocontrol, an organisation that includes EU states and 12 other nations.

Limited cooperation

While there is broad cooperation on upgrading technology, industry and environmental groups say they do not see a full switch to the FABs happening anytime soon. The best the EU can hope for in the near future, these sceptics say, is joint training and limited regional coordination on air traffic management, which is already taking place between Britain and Ireland, and Denmark and Sweden.

Aviation industry officials have told EURACTIV that the Commission is likely to propose a revamp of the Single European Sky as early as next year, in effect conceding that the FABs would remain on the table for the future development.

A Commission transport official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the EU executive is considering two options: taking non-compliant states to court to force action, or reconsidering the more ambitious proposals on FABs.

The official conceded that the Commission’s “bottom-up approach” – letting national governments take the initiative – has hampered efforts towards “coordination, consolidation and integration” of air traffic management.

“We are far from these targets,” he acknowledged.

National sovereignty

Sovereignty issues as well as labour concerns are the main source of inaction, officials said, with trade unions representing controllers resisting possible consolidation. Language is much less of a hurdle since English is the default in global air traffic control.

But there are also national security concerns, with civilian aircraft in many countries already routed around military airbases in what aviation industry officials, keen on more direct routes, say is a relic of the Cold War.

“The degree of integration within the FABs is minimal,” said David Henderson, an analyst at the Association of European Airlines, which represents 34 carriers.

“The Commission is faced with extremely recalcitrant member states and because the member states won’t budge, there’s very little that can be done.”

Industry officials also say the EU has been distracted in progress on the Single European Sky by its global dispute over the aviation Emissions Trading System (ETS).

“On the one hand the airlines are being asked to pay for the emissions, and on the other hand the European governments are not doing enough to reduce the emissions through air traffic management improvements,” said Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, an international industry association that promotes sustainable aviation.

With national governments struggling to put out the wildfires of currency and financial crises, the air traffic control project isn’t gaining traction.

"In the current environment, it’s just not happening,” Steele told EURACTIV.

SESAR and the future

Still, other components of the SES are moving ahead.

Development of new air traffic management systems to replace older-generation platforms – some dating to the post-war years – is moving as are negotiations between the United States and EU to create smoother transatlantic control.

Deployment of a new system is expected to begin in 2014, said Bo Redeborn, director of air traffic management for Eurocontrol, which is working to develop the SESAR air traffic management system.

But he acknowledged there are delays in the SES’s twin projects – the technology upgrades and the consolidated air blocks.

“Political marketing is raising expectations that things will be improved, and the airlines are impatient – they want more things to happen now,” he said in an interview. “But you can’t change things overnight.”

Speaking at the Transatlantic Aviation Issues Conference on 27 June in Brussels, EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas called for greater cooperation between the United States and Europe on air traffic control improvements.

Since “both the EU and the US have to deal with congested air spaces, control systems should be modernised – to improve fuel savings, cost efficiency and maintain a high level of safety while reducing emissions.”

Addressing the environment and climate change and efforts to reach a comprehensive agreement on emissions reduction through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Kallas said: “This has not always been an area where the EU and the US have seen eye-to-eye. But it is an issue of great concern to the EU, as I know it is to the US. Views are converging on the scale of the global environmental challenges that we face. We realise the enormity of the threat. … The EU and the US have an important role to play in reaching a global multilateral deal within ICAO.”

Under plans for functional air blocks, or FABS, 27 EU nations – plus Bosnia, Croatia, Norway and Switzerland – are to produce plans to coordinate air traffic control within nine FABs by 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 Commission, the airlines that pay for them, and environmentalists say a consolidation would improve efficiency, yielding cost savings for airlines while cutting flight delays and harmful carbon emissions.

Despite problems with the FABs, the modernisation of air traffic control technology, called SESAR, is moving ahead through Eurocontrol, an organisation that includes EU states and 12 other nations.

  • 4 Dec. 2012: Deadline for the nine functional air blocks, or FABs.

Official documents

Business and industry

International organisations

Subscribe to our newsletters