Julian Moxon/PARIS

A European Commission (EC)-led high-level working group has reached preliminary agreement on the shape of Europe's future air traffic management (ATM) system.

An interim report released by EC vice-president for transport and energy, Loyola de Palacio, says that "proposals are emerging that could substantially change the whole approach to European air traffic management".

The final report is due by the end of the year, but the high-level group, prompted by continuing "unacceptable delays", has already developed a string of "orientations" that will form the basis of its recommendations. "Every country agrees on the structural causes of the delays we suffer," says de Palacio, adding: "We have defined the main priorities to change this situation very quickly."

The group has carried out a comprehensive reassessment of the ways in which airspace is divided, how aircraft are allocated routes and the ways they are monitored in the air. Moves towards a single sky with no national borders "should be managed in phases", suggests the group, starting with upper airspace. Initiatives planned by Eurocontrol, such as flexible use of airspace and free routing, can only happen within this context.

A "strong regulator" is needed, in the form of the proposed European Aviation Safety Authority, and regulation "must be consistent across Europe". It hints that there can be little progress, however, until individual nations ratify Eurocontrol's revised convention - initiated in 1997 - which allows the EC to become a member of Eurocontrol and give the agency the power it must have to push through reforms.

On the sensitive issue of the release of military controlled airspace for civil use, the group insists that "no single airspace zone should be reserved permanently for any category of users".

While military and civil users are "willing to improve arrangements for co-ordinating usage", however, military members of the group view a common European defence policy as the "appropriate framework" for progress.

Furthermore, the "chronic" shortage of air traffic controllers must be addressed urgently, while vital new technologies such as Europe's Galileo satellite navigation system will be threatened without a "dramatic change" in attitudes to introducing new technology, the group believes.

• European traffic was 2.3% higher than predicted in the first five months of this year, with the continent's air traffic service providers unable to absorb the growth, despite considerable airspace restructuring. From January to May, there were 3,365,874 flights - a 7.6% increase on the same period in 1999, compared with the forecast 5.3% rise, resulting in an average air traffic control (ATC) delay per flight of 2.6min.

Despite a 15% increase in traffic since 1998, ATC delays are the same as they were two years ago and are 50% down compared to last year, when NATO's Kosovo campaign caused serious disruption to civilian traffic, says Eurocontrol.

Measures implemented this year to increase capacity include the redesign of airspace sectors, the reallocation of sector control to different ATC centres and a new air route network over Germany and Switzerland.

Source: Flight International