EU to bolster air traffic management to address looming crisis

European Commission's contingency plans for a disorderly Brexit only cover direct flights between the UK and the EU. [Roel Hemkes/Flickr]

The European Commission will this year unveil two key documents to improve the efficiency of airborne routes to tackle the capacity crunch of European airports.

The aviation sector is fertile ground for bitter disputes between airlines and airports, environmentalists and manufacturers, or between countries.

But there is a single issue on which everybody agrees: the importance of maximising air traffic management systems in order to improve aerospace capacity.

Even between the budget airlines and legacy carriers this issue is seen as a unifying priority.

“There are more topics we agree on than those we disagree on,” Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said in Brussels on Wednesday (8 February). Chief among these is air traffic management, the Irish businessman said.

More efficient routes could help not only to cut CO2 emissions. They could also add more flights to the fragmented European skies.

As the Commission’s aviation package warned in December 2015, capacity shortages will leave European airports unable to accommodate some two million flights by 2035. The plan called for “making the best use of existing capacity”.

EU plans measures to even competition with non-EU airlines

The European Commission is considering new measures to tackle what it sees as unfair competition from non-EU airlines as part of a package of proposals unveiled on Monday (7 November) designed to boost the competitiveness of Europe’s aviation sector.

Paul Flament, head of unit in the European Commission’s DG Grow, admitted that the document did not spell out how to reach that goal.

In order to fill in the gap, the executive will this year publish two documents: a navigation strategy for the aviation sector and an updated master plan for air traffic management, he said on Thursday (9 February) in an event organised by the European Business Aviation Association and hosted by the MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu.

Commission sources explained that this master plan would not only include a vision to tackle the capacity shortage, but also specific milestones to reach this goal. In particular, the plan would include a roadmap to progress on the implementation of the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR), the technological pillar of the long-awaited Single European Sky.

EU to modernise its air traffic infrastructure

The air transport industry is to receive €3 billion from the European Commission to merge and improve Europe’s air traffic infrastructure, the EU executive announced today (5 December).

The Commission will also publish a navigation strategy, seen by the aviation sector as an important pillar to facilitate the adoption of global navigation satellite systems that would increase air routes and airports capacity.

Airlines and EBAA are calling for these documents in order to facilitate the deployment of satellite-based landing systems such as the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS).

EGNOS allows for precision approaches to airports with vertical and lateral guidance, without the costly ground infrastructure needed for similar performances with other systems.

The results are improved access and safety in bad weather conditions, more passenger jets capable of landing in airports without additional investment, less fuel usage and noise reduction.

Global deal to curb aviation emissions 'not enough', MEPs warn

European lawmakers on Wednesday (12 October) gave a lukewarm reception to the landmark deal reached by the 191 members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to limit aviation emissions.

Despite the fact that the technology is already available, ten member states have not yet adopted it. Europe is lagging behind the US in the up-take of these satellite-based enhancers.

For once, money is not the primary barrier, given the limited cost of these systems. It is rather the lack of a unified vision and a political signal from Brussels.

According to Flament, who leads EGNOS department in the Commission, this is partly the reason why the penetration is much higher in the US, as their navigation strategy has bee in place since 2003.

A total of 3,000 runaways are using systems similar to EGNOS in the US, while the figure in the EU is only around 250.

But money would also help to facilitate its roll-out in smaller airports, where it would represent a “game changer”. Many regional airports are operating under capacity as they have to close under bad weather conditions.

However, EU funding support for the deployment of the technology to improve air traffic management could be severely affected by Brexit. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would affect the funding of numerous programmes, as the EU will lose a net contributor.

The cut would come not only as the EU is progressing on the modernisation and harmonisation of its ATM systems, but also as it nears a solution for the Single European Sky.

“We need to say now what we will need,” urged MEP Inés Ayala.

Gibraltar dispute delays EU airspace reform

A British-Spanish territorial dispute over Gibraltar threatened to block implementation of an agreement by European Union member states on Wednesday (3 December) to merge national air corridors to create shorter flight paths and cut costs and carbon dioxide emissions.

The EU aviation sector directly employs between 1.4 million and 2 million people and supports between 4.8 million and 5.5 million jobs, according to different studies mentioned by the European Commission's draft document. The direct contribution of aviation to EU GDP is €110 billion, while the overall impact, including tourism, is as high as €510 billion.

The aviation strategy identifies three key priorities:

  • Tapping into growth markets, by improving services, market access and investment oportunitites with third countries, whilst guaranteeing a level playing field;
  • Tackling limits to growth in the air and on the ground, by reducing capacity constrains and improving efficiency and connectivity;
  • Maintaining high EU safety and security standards, by shifting to a risk and performance based mindset.

The social dimension and the protection of workers' rights has been also underlined by the MEPs as one of the priorities that should be addressed by the upcoming strategy.  As it was already announced by Commissioner Bulc in the Parliament's plenary, the strategy leaves the central role to the social dialogue.

In parallel, the executive will consider whether some policy initiatives are needed to clarify the applicable law and competent courts for the employment contracts of mobile workers in the aviation sector.

  • European Commission: SESAR website

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