ANALYSIS: Brussels bemoans ‘dispiriting’ single-sky delays

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As the European Commission's directorate general for mobility and transport puts it: "Something needs to be done about the heavy airspace congestion causing lengthy delays on many European flights, and the strain on airport capacity due to the projected increase in traffic. This is the aim of the ambitious initiative for a Single European Sky (SES), launched in 2004" and designed to triple European airspace capacity and halve air traffic control costs.

As any frustrated air traveller in Europe would add, that was getting on for 10 years ago.

And, as one official with what is known as "DG Move" put it at a recent special press briefing in Brussels, the lack of progress is "dispiriting".

Nor does European vice-president for transport Siim Kallas mince his words. He says that last year "we came to a moment when we realised nothing was working".

Money and politics underlie the delay. Meanwhile, the need for change in the European air traffic management (ATM) system grows more urgent. In Europe, there are 68 ATM zones. In the USA, there are 20 - but 67% more flights. Meanwhile, as the Commission observes, fuel-price rises hit European carriers hard if they are forced to fly farther than necessary to zig-zag between ATM zones; if for no other reason than cutting fuel burn by straightening out routes, SES is a no-brainer: an average flight path is 42km longer than necessary. The accumulated inefficiency of Europe's ATM system is reckoned to cost airlines €5 billion yearly.

The core of the SES air traffic management concept is elegant enough. But the consolidation of a patchwork system into nine "functional airspace blocks" was to have been completed by December 2012. The Commission is thus initiating infringement proceedings against those member states that have been dragging their heels on necessary legislation.

The functional airspace blocks should be: UK-Ireland; Denmark-Sweden; Baltic (Poland, Lithuania); Central Europe (Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina); Europe Central (France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland); Danube (Bulgaria, Romania); North Europe (Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway); and Southwest (Portugal, Spain).

While in principle the creation of SES can be compared to the creation of other single markets within the European Union, in practice this one has been exceptionally difficult to realise. The Commission's approach has been, as it was with markets like telecommunications, to decouple operations from regulations. In aviation, that principle has freed carriers to fly any routes, doing away with restrictions that in an earlier age would probably have prevented the rise of low-cost airlines.

Unfortunately, member states have been reluctant to relax sovereign control of airspace, and are comfortable with aviation's longstanding international governance through the Chicago Convention and ICAO. Safety and interoperability concerns create reluctance to move away from established technologies such as UHF radio and radar.

Paying for SES is also a stumbling block. With 2007 levels of European air traffic not likely to be recovered until 2016, plans that charges from rising traffic levels would pay for the changeover to SES need rethinking. Moreover, when a flight moves from one ATM zone to another, money moves with it. All of these features add up to strong resistance to change, even though, with air traffic having taken a recession-time dip below its long-term growth trajectory, now is a sensible time to overhaul the infrastructure.

Compounding that problem is the fact that, with national economies struggling, politicians have no appetite for trying to convince air traffic controllers that their jobs are not at risk from the shift to SES. Clearly, and the Commission readily accepts this, there is no way to transform a sector without job losses. But the Brussels argument is compelling: in the longer term, rising air traffic volume will create demand for more controllers.

The problem is that those controllers will use new skills, and the jobs will not be distributed geographically as they are today. As the Commission sees it, this is a "normal process" of industrial change, and it creates new jobs and new opportunities - and, in the case of SES, it should improve the efficiency of air travel.

As Kallas emphasises, the Commission is, above all, dedicated to improving the lives of European citizens. He sees deregulating aviation and increasing the availability of internal flights as a triumph on that score. Likewise, the Commission is determined to see Europe have a competitive, sustainable aviation industry, as it is a major employer and mobility is one of the most valued of citizen benefits. As Kallas puts it: "If aviation is in decline, you have big problems for a large number of people."

One of the big levers in Commission hands is to improve airport capacity and flexibility, and Kallas is optimistic that the recently introduced airports package will achieve its goals of cutting noise and improving slot allocations. Brussels is also negotiating with Russia for proper overflight rights, an issue which has been a costly and sometimes blocking burden for European carriers, and was thought to have been resolved as part of the deal that brought Russia into the World Trade Organisation in August 2012, after 18 years of negotiations.

But Commission efforts to create the Single European Sky have increasingly come into collision with national politics. In short, member states have no stomach for taking on air traffic controllers unions in order to break the 27 air navigation service providers monopolies that stand in the way of SES.

Kallas acknowledges that, were SES to be devised today, the nine functional airspace blocks might not be deemed the best solution. His transport directorate has even asked if it is time to start all over, with new technology - but going back to square one would consume two years with new legislation. Brussels is working hard to employ all the tools at its disposal to keep SES on track but, as Kallas observes, "Europe is a complicated animal".