Failed air control mergers put EU countries under pressure

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The European Commission should end national monopolies of air traffic control if it is to succeed in making air travel more efficient, an executive of low-cost leader Ryanair told EU officials yesterday (21 January).

David O’Brien, director of flight and ground operations for Ryanair, the low-cost Irish carrier, said national monopolies over air traffic control contribute to travel delays and lack of progress on the EU’s efforts to create a Single European Sky (SES).

“We are full of despair,” O’Brien said of the airline industry, which backs efforts to revamp air traffic management and a costly plan to standardise guidance technology.

O’Brien spoke at a hearing on the status of the SES, an umbrella of laws and goals that took effect in 2004 and 2009. A new effort, called SESII+, aims at speedier implementation of the earlier initiatives.

“Airlines probably aren’t here today because they probably don’t think it’s worthwhile to be here,” said O’Brien, one of two airline executives to speak at the hearing.

Ryanair, Europe’s second-largest carrier behind Germany’s Lufthansa, is often at odds with competitors but nonetheless shares concerns about the slow progress in areas such as consolidated air traffic control.

O’Brien said the efforts had been “hijacked” by national authorities and called for reforms aimed at making air traffic management across Europe competitive.

‘Long way’ from SES

Europe’s top transportation official, Siim Kallas, has conceded that ambitious plans to consolidate a hotchpotch air traffic management system are faltering, hampered by member states that are resisting loss of control.

Kallas, the European Commission vice president in charge of transport, has vowed to take “every possible action” to enforce one of the centerpieces of SES, the agreement to merge national air traffic control space into nine functional airspace blocks, or FABs.

Most EU countries missed a 4 December 2012 deadline to create the FABs.

Kallas, speaking at the SES hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee, acknowledged that “we are a long way from creating a single European airspace”.

The Commission is now pursuing infringement actions against governments that defied the FAB deadline, he said.

The EU executive estimates that eliminating today’s multi-jurisdictonal system would save airlines €5 billion annually because they could save fuel, and reduce their environmental impact, by flying more direct routes.

Turbulent times for industry

Saddled with slow growth, mounting losses and high fuel costs, Europe’s struggling airlines have pointed the finger at governments – including Germany and France – for failing to live up to their obligations under the SES.

Lufthansa chief executive Christoph Franz, told the Association of European Airlines in a 24 May 2012 speech that he was “furious that the largest EU member states are simply not delivering” on their commitments.

The failure to implement FABs has also angered supporters in the European Parliament, including Brian Simpson, who chairs the transport committee.

Ecology groups also 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.

The European Commission in turn has estimated that cutting flight delays by 30 seconds could save some €920 million through 2014 while reducing airline carbon emissions by up to 12% annually.

A patchwork of flight control

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. FABs would in effect erase some of those boundaries, with controllers handling regional blocks without regard to national airspace.

EU governments – along with Bosnia, Croatia, Norway and Switzerland – were 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.

Denmark and Sweden have made the most progress in developing their joint FAB, followed by Britain and Ireland, according to a report prepared for the European Parliament.

Sovereignty issues as well as labour concerns are the main source of inaction, officials have said, with trade unions representing controllers resisting possible consolidation.

Some governments have also resisted allowing foreign controllers to handle air traffic over military installations.

“At present the non-existent Single Sky in Europe costs some €14 million per day resulting in a permanent erosion of the competitiveness of European air transport,” Bernard Gustin, chief executive of Brussels Airlines and chairman of the Association of European Airlines, said in remarks at the European Economic and Social Committee hearing.

“We expect more commitment from the member states and a reinforced regulation from the European Commission, which will not only strengthen economic regulation at EU level but will also open up the market to ancillary services. A more top-down approach led by the Commission and an effective sanction mechanism are needed to achieve the SES high-level goals. Ensuring that SES II+ achieves tangible results and brings added value to the stakeholders must be a top priority for the European Commission in 2013. At this point in time institutional changes such as the extension of EASA should not be on the top of the agenda."

First proposed in 2004 and established in 2009, the functional air blocks – or FABs - were enthusiastically backed by member states and the aviation industry. The deadline for compliance was 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 FABs include EU and non-EU countries and could eventually incorporate nations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as a way to reduce flight delays and provide more direct routing to save fuel. Whereas Europeans can now move freely on the ground within the Schengen area, airspace guidance is still largely divided by national boundaries.

  • 2020: Number of daily flights in Europe expected top 50,000, up from the current 33,000 on peak travels days.

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