Slow motion on air traffic control triggers furore in Parliament

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Anger over the failure of many EU countries to cooperate on air traffic control erupted yesterday (9 October) in the European Parliament’s transport committee, with the panel's chairman accusing national leaders of “deceit” and reneging on commitments to improve aviation performance.

With eight weeks to go before the EU’s functional airspace blocks, or FABs, are to be operating, British MEP Brian Simpson – expressing broader frustrations of the transport committee he chairs – called for court action to compel governments to live up to their agreements to consolidate Europe’s picture puzzle of air traffic boundaries.

“In my 25 years in this Parliament, I’ve never come across a more deceitful Council,” Simpson told the committee. “They agree to do something and then don’t do it.”

“We have 27 Berlin walls that have been put in place,” he said at a hearing called on the status of FABs, part of the broader Single European Sky (SES) initiative aimed at consolidating and modernising air traffic control into nine regional zones.

First proposed in 2004 and established in 2009, the FABs were enthusiastically backed by member states and the aviation industry. Deadline for compliance is 4 December.

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.

Only two of the nine European FABs are nominally functional and some countries – including Spain and Portugal which are due to share air traffic responsibilities in southwestern Europe – have yet to sign a cooperation agreement.

Dysfunctional air blocks

“My sad conclusion is that no functional airspace block will fulfil all the requirements for a functional [FAB],” said Georg Jarzembowski, a German former MEP who has served as the EU’s FAB coordinator since July 2010.

He testified before the transport committee that Denmark and Sweden were the leaders in compliance followed by Britain and Ireland.

But Jarzembowski said other countries – including some of the most important aviation markets, like France and German – were falling well short of compliance with the FAB mandate and recommended that the Commission establish binding targets for compliance to replace the current system based on national agreements.

“The transport ministers don’t take it seriously,” Jarzembowski said. “It’s a question of political will on the part of the transport ministers.”

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.

Airlines struggling to eke out profits in tough economic times have vented their own frustration over the wobbly progress. 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 (T&E) 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.

Simpson’s attack on national leaders was echoed by other members of the committee, who urged the European Commission to be prepared to go to court against governments that fail to meet the FAB deadlines.

“Too many things are signed at the European level and then never implemented,” said Gesine Meissner (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, Germany). “They are not worth the paper they are written on.”

Missing their targets

Jarzembowski’s progress report shows:

  • Denmark and Sweden have made the most progress in their FAB;
  • Ireland and Britain are largely on course in their FAB cooperation;
  • The Danube FAB (Romania and Bulgaria) and Baltic FAB (Poland an Lithuania) are partially compliant.

The following FABs are not ready and face “significant problems”:

  • North European: Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Norway;
  • Europe Central: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland;
  • Central Europe: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Under plans for functional air blocks, or FABS, 27 EU nations – plus Bosnia and Herzegovina, 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.

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