Experts urge EU to implement ‘single sky’


Member states must overcome their reluctance to hand over sovereignty on air-traffic control systems and speed up the implementation of a unified European system in order to improve industry’s efficiency, enhance safety and slash CO2 emissions, according to a report by high-level experts.

A group of experts appointed by the European Commission adopted a report, on 6 July 2007, urging the EU to speed up the implementation of its single European sky (SES). 

According to the report, improved air-traffic management through the SES “can play a vital role in increasing capacity and reducing the environmental impact of aviation”. 

At a time when European air traffic is set to double by 2020 and EU nations are striving to limit the impact of this increasing travel on the environment – notably by integrating aviation into the EU’s carbon cap-and-trade scheme (see LinksDossier on aviation and emissions trading) – the report points out that the challenge for Europe is not to look for new systems but to accelerate the delivery of existing initiatives such as the SES. 

The report sets out ten recommendations, including granting more power to EU bodies such as Eurocontrol and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in setting the regulatory framework in Europe, further involving industry in order to come up with more market-oriented solutions, and addressing the EU’s airport-capacity crunch to avoid bottlenecks on the ground. 

Group Chairwoman Jacqueline Tammenons Bakker said that the continuing fragmentation of EU skies places an unnecessary financial burden on both airlines and passengers amounting to €3.3 billion annually. It also contributes to increased air pollution and puts air safety at risk by creating unnecessary bottlenecks in the air. 

She blamed member states for the delay in implementation, saying: "The objective of the Single European Sky is for planes flying from A to B get there in the most efficient way. Why has it not progressed as much as necessary? It's because air-traffic navigation is still very much a national issue. What we propose to do in our recommendations is to give the Commission advice on how it can break through that constraint." 

She commented: "We also see no reasons why sovereignty considerations should impede cross-border co-operation between air-traffic management organisations," and called for new economic legislation to encourage individual air navigation service providers to work together in order to reduce costs. 

Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot  welcomed the report of the high-level group, saying it was "a solid starting point for proposing concrete actions". 

The Association of European Airlines (AEA) underlined that "the potential benefits of an efficient organisation of air space are immense", involving "significant reduction of delays" and the possibility of avoiding around 12 million tonnes of airline carbon dioxide emissions each year. 

The group stressed the need to address the fragmented European sky before implementing any measures such as integrating aviation into the European emission trading scheme. "In a political environment which foresees European airlines having to buy permits to emit CO2, it is incongruous that a high proportion of those emissions are the result of structural inadequacy of air traffic management. Airlines should not be obliged to buy permits to waste kerosene…Without significant progress towards a Single Sky, an emissions trading scheme would be less relevant for the environment," said AEA Secretary-General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus. 

But he warned: "We must not see expensive fragmentation replaced by expensive bureaucracy. From the outset, the European Commission should lay down a performance framework which includes rigorous cost control. Key to a successful outcome is governance." 

European airports association ACI EUROPE President Yiannis Paraschis  said: "The report clearly shows that Europe needs to reconcile the growth of our industry with improved environmental protection. This must be based on a coherent and effective policy which means not resorting to environmental taxes. The de-fragmentation of the European sky through SES is the key element that requires immediate action, combined with an increased focus on technological improvements and the inclusion of aviation within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme." 

He added: "I am extremely pleased that the HLG has recognised airport capacity as the main bottleneck that the aviation system will be facing over the coming years. You can add as much capacity in the sky as you want, but if this is not matched by capacity on the ground, you are not resolving anything but rather just creating more inefficiency from an economic and environmental point of view. The report is extremely clear on the way forward: optimisation of existing capacity is not enough, what is needed is new airport infrastructure." 

Airspace is one of the areas in which European integration has been slow to keep up the pace. 

Indeed, the European sky is still divided into 27 different pieces of airspace that remain under the control of national governments. 

This fragmentation has negative repercussions in terms of the efficiency of Europe's air travel because airlines have to cut across numerous air-traffic control systems in order to get to their destination. It also causes safety concerns, by creating additional traffic jams in the sky and adds to air pollution by forcing planes to fly extra kilometres and assume holding patterns in the sky before being able to land in Europe's busy airports. 

To address these issues, the Commission launched an initiative, in 1999, aimed at creating a 'single European sky'. A series of regulations was adopted in 2004. 

  • End 2008: Commission to assess progress on implementing the single European sky.

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