Ahead of the annual A4E Aviation Summit in Brussels today, we speak to the association’s incoming chairman - Air France-KLM group chief executive Ben Smith - about the key challenges facing the European airline sector and the role A4E can play for its members.

What do you hope to achieve as Chairman of A4E?

I feel honoured to chair A4E and represent Europe’s finest airlines in contributing to the future ambitions of our sector.

2020 is a critical year. We must continue to facilitate the safe and secure flow of passengers and goods whilst ensuring our industry’s green transition in the spirit of the European Green Deal. 2020 should be a milestone year for A4E and a turning point towards more sustainable air travel for passengers. It’s a huge challenge, but one I’m confident we will meet.

As emphasised by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, changes linked to climate, digital technologies and geopolitics are having a profound impact on Europeans. The Commission is determined to show leadership on these issues and A4E intends to take an active role in this transformation by being engaged at every level of the legislative discussion.

Sustainability and green aviation are a key focus for aviation leaders these days. How can A4E carriers, including AF-KLM, best contribute?

We are fully aware of the urgency of climate change, and the AF-KLM Group is accelerating its own commitments. We were once again a world air transport leader in the 2019 Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

The “flight shame” movement is a reminder of how much passengers care about their environmental impact and want to see the sector step up its efforts. Our industry is not blind to the active role we must play for the next generations. We took action early on to improve our environmental performance, with results like more efficient aircraft and adoption of the UN’s global aviation carbon compensation system, CORSIA, as good first steps. Let’s not forget that the best way to reduce our carbon footprint is radical fleet renewal. A4E airlines will spend €170 billion by 2030 on new generation aircraft which produce up to 50% less emissions and noise than their predecessors.

Fleet modernisation, sustainable aviation fuel use, eco-piloting, weight reduction, ground operations, waste management, progressive removal of single-use plastic items onboard – all these measures are tools used by A4E carriers to best contribute to sustainable aviation of the future.

ATC delays continue to represent a massive challenge for airlines and their passengers. How is Air France-KLM working to reduce the expected impact next summer?

Structural delays due to ATC staffing and capacity shortfalls continue to increase. At Air France-KLM alone last year, we redesigned our flight schedules, allocated additional spare aircraft and increased our in-flight speeds in order to minimise the impact on our passengers.

We worked with Eurocontrol’s Network Manager, who set up several route restriction measures in collaboration with most of the western European Air Navigation Service Providers, to mitigate these structural issues.

We also invested in datalink communication technology that reduces voice communications between pilots and controllers to enable an increase in capacity – and we trained our pilots accordingly.

This all contributed to a reduction in ATC delays of around 10% compared to 2018, whereas it had doubled in 2018 compared to 2017.

Unfortunately, these measures have a significant economic and environmental impact, since our aircraft cannot fly their optimal routings/flight levels or speeds. These solutions are not sustainable, but regrettably they are the only ones available in the short-term and for this reason will be implemented again in 2020.

The Single European Sky (SES) regulatory framework is currently being updated. What do you expect from the European Commission in drafting this update?

Following 16 years of regulatory inaction, we welcomed a break-through at the December 2019 EU Transport Ministers’ meeting – namely an opportunity to overhaul the outdated 2013 regulatory framework.

Apart from the huge operational improvements, there is the fantastic potential of an up to 10% CO2 reduction thanks to more efficient trajectories. Completion of the SES is part of the European Green Deal agenda. We expect all EU Institutions and ATM stakeholders to set aside their “personal” interests and to embark on a common approach.

What would be your primary message to European policy makers?

Let’s work together to radically move things forward so that this ambitious agenda can be implemented in a workable and financially-sustainable way. Instead of aviation taxes that reduce our ability to invest in new, cleaner equipment, we need effective measures to reduce carbon emissions. Legislators must boost our efforts to move away from fossil fuels and support connectivity and growth whilst taking into consideration both social and regional impacts.

We need to allocate enough resources for sustainable aviation fuels so that adequate volumes can come to market more quickly and affordably, together with new aircraft technologies.

Sound financial results will enable airlines to continue to invest regularly in reducing our environment footprint. This also means maintaining a level playing field in what remains a globally competitive market. A regulatory framework that addresses both societal issues (like climate change) and keeps healthy airlines in business is fundamental.

A4E member airlines will work constructively with the regulators to provide feedback on regulatory issues as well as operational and technical topics, to turn these opportunities into a reality.

Finally, if you weren’t an airline CEO, what would you be doing instead?

If I wasn’t working in aviation, I would have likely been an architect. That said, I have been passionate about airplanes since I was a kid. As a young adult, I never stopped trying to join this fabulous industry. I have gone through every position at every level. Each time I realized how lucky I was to work in such a magical environment, which brings people and cultures together. I have the chance to work in a sector that makes people dream and that has a real societal, economic and environmental role to play.