The Single European Sky: “We have a problem”

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Matthias Finger, Florence School of Regulation

Matthias Finger, Florence School of Regulation

The project of a ‘single European airspace’ is currently in gridlock. Negotiators focus on fragmented solutions rather than building shared infrastructure through integrated technology, writes Matthias Finger.

Matthias Finger is the director of the Transport Area of the Florence School of Regulation (FSR).

On July 10th 2014, the European Commission started infringement procedures by sending formal letters to 18 EU governments, urging them to step up the implementation of the nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs).

The nine FABs were created as an intermediary step towards a truly integrated Single European Sky (SES), forcing national air traffic controllers to cooperate with each other in airspace blocks that follow traffic flows rather than national boundaries.

This recent step of the Commission indicates that the creation of the SES – the equivalent of a high-voltage electricity grid or the European rail infrastructure – is progressing slowly; worse, it is in gridlock. Started in 2004 (SES I) and further pushed in 2009 (SES II) and 2013 (SES II+), it appears that its original performance objectives  have been watered down and are difficult to enforce because of a lack of regulatory powers at all levels, national and European.

Yet, everybody agrees that the SES is a good idea. It was created to overcome the highly fragmented European airspace, resulting in economic inefficiencies, safety problems and unnecessary pollution. As such, it was one of the answers to a lack of European competitiveness. With the current economic crisis and the losses incurred by almost all European airlines, its realization has become urgent.

The wrong incentives?

But urgency does not mean action: national sovereignty is certainly a major obstacle, but by far not the only one. Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) are clearly not incentivized to act either. First movers could well be punished and actually disappear, especially if they are ANSPs of small countries. Let us also not forget that a Single European Sky – which will be obtained through the reduction of 27 (+2) Service Providers managing 49 Area Control Centres and involved into nine FABs into possibly one airspace block – means consolidation and layoffs. Moreover, the most important obstacle of all is the fact that no actor, not even the Commission, has the power to change all of this, leading to the inevitable aforementioned gridlock.

So, is there a way out of this gridlock?

Ideas are indeed scarce. But recently two interesting proposals have been made: Eurocontrol has proposed to centralise some ancillary services, for delivery by a single ANSP or a FAB, on the basis that ANSPs should focus on their core business. This could serve as a first step towards a gradual centralisation of more and ultimately all air navigation services. Skyguide, the Swiss ANSP, on the other hand, has proposed to develop a framework (Virtual Centre Model), based on common standardized controller working stations, shared data centres and fully standardized interfaces. Such a framework would reduce infrastructure costs for the different ANSPs, support a flexible allocation of sectors among ANSPs within and across FABs and create a SES at the least at the data management level. It seems to me that at least the common infrastructure platform is identical, the Eurocontrol proposal going perhaps further in terms of centrally provided services, but the Skyguide idea focusing straight away on core service provision.

Both proposals are certainly a possible way out of the current gridlock and ultimately lead to the kind of defragmentation which is required for the SES to perform. They seem to me to be very helpful ways out of it as they do not in themselves create losers, except perhaps among suppliers who will no longer be able to play ANSPs (and their governments for that matter) against each other. Such a single infrastructure (data exchange) platform could indeed be desirable for these ANSPs whose infrastructure technologies are up for renewal and by doing so could substantially reduce investment costs.

Sharing infrastructure is furthermore a process that many ANSPs have actually often already experienced within their national boundaries; this reduces the threat and softens the “blow” of consolidation and restructuring. Also, it could be phased in by way of a two-tier approach, where ANSPs could choose between the (incentivised) benefits of opting-in, and the (dis-incentivised) costs of opting-out. For example, ANSP that opt in later could be made to pay a disproportionate cost share of the common infrastructure system at a later stage. Important additional pressure could be created by way of the already existing performance scheme, perhaps even by recognizing investment into a shared infrastructure as being eligible, whereas opting-out ANSPs would have to meet tougher (cost) performance objectives.

At the same time, it is clear that the Commission is going to continue to apply pressure via FAB infringements, the performance scheme, and further legislative packages to tighten the tourniquet further.  Finally, we should also look again at the “architecture” of the SES – and the respective roles of Eurocontrol, EASA, the Commission, and other relevant actors. 

Yes, the European SES is currently in gridlock, and, yes, a “way out” is urgent. But the “way out” may also come from a technological angle, i.e., in the form of a commonly shared infrastructure, with regulation increasingly being used to incentivize the use of such a commonly shared infrastructure technology.

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