Further refinements needed in the Single European Sky.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The European Union has a well established competence and expertise in air traffic management which has materialised through the Commission framework on the Single European Sky (SES). This is vital at a time when, pre-pandemic, there has not only been an increase in air traffic but also a need to have safer and more environmentally friendly conditions. The rethinking that has taken place as a result of the Single Sky Framework has to a degree de-fragmented European airspace, reduced delays, increased safety standards and flight efficiency to reduce the aviation environmental footprint, and reduced costs related to service provision – The good news is that operational, technological and institutional level efforts are continuing to deliver more benefits for people and planet. 

However, the European Parliament says much more can still be done. Member of the European Parliament and rapporteur on the dossier Marian-Jean Marinescu highlights that “Europe’s current airspace architecture is built according to national borders. This aviation nationalism means longer flights, more delays, extra costs for passengers, higher emissions, and more pollution. With a truly Single European Sky and a unified European air management system, we would create a new airspace architecture based not on borders but on efficiency. Unfortunately, the position adopted recently by the Council is based on national concerns. Therefore we urge Member States to fly high, so we can finally address the problems of cost, fragmentation and emissions plaguing European aviation”.

In 2014, the European air traffic management system controlled 26 800 flights on an average daily basis. The impact of the SES policy now means that average delays for en-route air traffic flow management is just 0.5 min per flight. To achieve this goal, the European Air Navigation Services covers 37 air navigation service providers participating in a cost-efficiency benchmarking report – This comes at a cost of EUR 8.6 bn with around 57,000 staff, of which 16,900 are air traffic controllers. On average each flight is 49 km longer than the direct flight.

The European Parliament wants more competition between air-traffic controllers. They suggest that one or a group of member states could choose air-traffic service providers through a competitive tender, unless it would result in cost inefficiency, operational, climate or environmental loss, or inferior working conditions. The same logic would apply when choosing other air navigation services, such as communication, meteorological or aeronautical information services.

Currently, the SES legislative framework consists of four Basic Regulations covering the provision of air navigation services, the organisation and use of airspace and the interoperability of the European Air Traffic Management Network. These four Regulations were revised and extended in 2009 to increase the overall performance of the air traffic management system in Europe under the SES II Package. Now, within this Commission mandate, it is being suggested that the package is revised once again. 

An extensive involvement of air traffic control stakeholders ensures that all systems are under continual improvement. The stakeholders include air navigation service providers, national supervisory authorities, trade unions, airport authorities, the military, certification authorities, and Eurocontrol. Furthermore, the SES framework has been supplemented by an integrated approach towards safety by the extension of the competencies of the EU Aviation Safety Agency in the field of aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services. 

As a credit to the success of the Single European Sky framework, it is worth noting that the framework does not stop at the border of the European Union. Its extension to third ‘neighbouring’ countries primarily relies on the EU’s policy in the field of international relations. This policy, which gives priority to the association and/or integration of third countries into the EU legal framework, also considers the added value of regional cooperation activities carried out at the level of international organisations. Cooperative operational arrangements with ANSPs from key partners of the EU are also promoted by the Commission as a significant task of the Network Manager in order to better manage intercontinental traffic to/from the EU and improve the performance of the European air traffic management network.

European airspace management must be fine-tuned further to optimise flight routes, reduce flight delays and cut CO2 emissions. Additionally, the Single European Sky must follow the Green Deal and contribute to the goal of climate neutrality with up to a 10% reduction in climate-impacting emissions. This means that the Commission will need to adopt further performance targets on capacity, cost efficiency, climate change and environmental protection for air navigation services. 

Undoubtedly, this will mean increased charges levied on airspace users, and therefore on passengers too. These charges can only add more strain to an industry already reeling from the damage done by the health pandemic. 

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