As the European Commission (EC) puts forward its single sky proposals on reform of air traffic management (ATM), questions remain over a future role for Eurocontrol.

The proposals, which will now go forward to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, are broadly in line with the conclusions of the high- level group formed by transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio to steer reform of Europe's fragmented air traffic control (ATC) system.

The group has pushed for separation of the regulatory and technical aspects of ATM with Palacio making it clear that she wants to see regulatory power given to a new "single sky committee" under the auspices of the EC. Even Eurocontrol insiders admit that there is merit in this argument. "Internally, we are working towards clearly visible distinctions between regulatory and technical matters," says Alex Hendriks, head of unit at Eurocontrol's airspace management and navigation unit. He adds, however, that it has yet to be worked out how the relationship between Eurocontrol and the EC will operate.

The proposals do make clear that Eurocontrol's role of setting limits on traffic growth in line with ATC capacity "is no longer acceptable". This is partly needed due to the commercialisation taking place among ATC providers, which could lead to conflicts of interest.

Industry insiders say that Eurocontrol is in the midst of an internal debate, with some even suggesting the possibility of German ATC provider DFS taking over its Maastricht centre. There is also talk of the agency's central flow management unit (CFMU) being hived off as a separate concern.

Brussels makes it clear, however, that its plan to take a seat alongside the Eurocontrol member states is a crucial step on the road to single skies. That would ensure that the agency's decisions are binding in European law. This is still being blocked by the much-publicised dispute between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar, even though a temporary suspension of this dispute has allowed Palacio to put the proposals forward.

The relationship between military and civil airspace, a key part of the reform process, may also need fine tuning. As expected, the single sky committee will include two representatives from each member state, one civil and one military, and the EC also expresses interest in establishing an operational air traffic group as a framework for co-operation. Brussels hopes that the so-called "second pillar" covering military co-operation by member states may provide the basis for increased co-ordination. One observer warned, however, that it remains to be seen "whether the military will play ball".

Source: Airline Business