Long-sought progress in implementing the Single European Sky took a further step forward in December, with an agreement on creating the largest of the nine common airspace blocks that will replace national systems, and the first performance targets set.
The agreement, between Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, creates the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central. This is the third such block, after UK-Ireland and Denmark-Sweden, and the largest. It handles more than half of all flights in Europe and commits the states to take appropriate measures to essentially oversee a single common region of airspace.
European transport commissioner Siim Kallas believes this should "inspire" Europe's other member states to conclude their efforts to have functional airspace blocks in place in two years' time, as he makes the Single European Sky one of his priority policies.
The first performance targets for the Single European Sky, running from 2012 to 2014, have also been set. Kallas estimates savings of €340 million a year could result for the sector through fewer delays, lower costs and reduced emissions.
While welcoming the developments, industry bodies remain aware of the long road ahead. Association of European Airlines secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus notes that the agreement only creates the legal basis for the common blocks, not a consensus on how it will work.
"The next step is for the air navigation service providers of the states involved to sit down together and get to work on the details," says Schulte-Strathaus. "Key are the performance targets that must remedy the weaknesses of the current system and therefore be ambitious."
IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani describes it as "two steps forward and one back", criticising the level of cost-efficiency programme targets. "A watered-down 3.5% target is a major disappointment," he says.
ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec says the developments are positive, even if progress may still be slow. "This is the first time we have a real regulatory dynamic to make change happen," he observes.
PRESSURE ON THE STATES
Pressure will now be on all the member states to press ahead with implementing the common airspace blocks by the December 2012 deadline. "Europe is now on the right track," says Schulte-Strathaus, "but the real frustration is not following it through at member state level."
The deals struck in December are further signs of gathering momentum in recognition of the value of the air sector, particularly under Belgium's presidency of the EU in the past six months. This was evident in the Declaration of Bruges, which committed to decisive action in four key areas of aviation policy after October's European Aviation Summit, together with the creation of the cross-industry strategic advice panel, the Aviation Platform.
"I think there has been some momentum built up over 2010," says ACI's Jankovec, pointing to the added impetus that emerged from the volcanic ash crisis and Europe's economic problems. "The pressure to change the inefficiencies is there," he says. "We need the momentum to stay and continue to grow."
Much of this has been achieved under Belgium's six-month presidency and already the European associations are looking ahead to how this momentum can be retained and pushed through to fruition under the Hungarian and Polish EU presidencies which follow in 2011.
The industry will also want to see an aligned position among the different parts of the EC itself, and from the European Council and member states, to support its policy goals.