COLIN BAKER & ALAN GEORGE BRUSSELS The European Commission's "single sky" report on air traffic management integration recommends the setting up of a new regulator for Europe's skies. But where does this leave Eurocontrol, the body that has traditionally co-ordinated European ATM?

It was a long time coming, but worth the wait. The high-level group (HLG) set up by the European Commission (EC) to mould together Europe's fragmented air traffic system into a so-called "single sky" has delivered its final report and while it throws up as many questions as it provides answers, one thing is certain: EC transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio is determined to fulfil her pledge to deliver a unified air traffic management (ATM) system.

Key suggestions from the report are that the European Union (EU) should develop a more active role as the key arbiter of European air traffic regulation by 2005, while detailed implementation and monitoring of the new ATM system would be undertaken by an "autonomous regulator". It is not clear where this leaves Eurocontrol, the organisation hitherto responsible for ATM within the EU and beyond.

The HLG was established by the EC last January to recommend ways to implement the Single European Sky. The HLG included senior European civil aviation organisation officials and senior military officers responsible for ATM.

The group held 10 meetings, all chaired by de Palacio, who launched the single skies project in a Communication, or policy document, in November 1999. "Ms Palacio's personal participation made all the difference", says one EC official. "People felt her sense of purpose".

The single skies initiative represents a bid to boost ATM efficiency and subsequently to reduce the delays that have plagued European air traffic and which partly stem from the fragmentation of the continent's ATM structure.

Standard equipment

The HLG's final report does not define the nature of the regulatory body. Eurocontrol will continue to play an important role, but mainly as a source of technical expertise and as a forum for non-EU member states. Some industry observers favour the creation of an organisation within the EU to deal with air traffic management, along the lines of the recently proposed European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

The report explicitly proposes that EASA should eventually be responsible for "safety regulation of air traffic management", noting that the agency would be empowered to make "binding and directly applicable rules with a full enforcement power".

The HLG also recommends the full integration of civilian and military ATM. "On this, the climate in the HLG was very good, and we have reason for optimism", comments an official, although he adds: "The challenge will be to create a legal framework."

The report goes on to set out a phased approach to the institution of single skies and points to the eventual "introduction of new concepts, eg free route airspace starting with upper airspace above a certain altitude and reducing in stages to optimise capacity." Upper airspace is not defined; but an official notes that it could "possibly be above 20,000 feet".

The HLG also proposes a drive to standardise air traffic control systems - including equipment - across Europe. Also urged is a programme to improve and standardise training for controllers to encourage their mobility and thus to ease anticipated staff shortages.

Moving forward

The HLG report has just been sent to EU member governments. A further EC Communication will be issued next spring, to be approved by European heads of government. Also in spring the EC will issue draft legislation which it is hoped will be approved by early 2002. It is expected that member states will have incorporated the new laws into their own legislation by the end of 2004 - coinciding with the end of the present European Commission's term in office.

The HLG recommendations have attracted "a fair amount of consensus", says a key official in Brussels although a few member states still have sensitivities about some aspects of the approach. "France is the only major member state which undertakes ATM as a public service, and there are fears about possible job losses", he explains, recalling that French controllers went on strike last June in protest at the project. Interestingly, however, one observer reports that the French Government has been telling its air traffic control (ATC) unions that changes may be necessary next year.

Some military organisations need time to study the implications of co-operation on ATM matters. The official stresses that "none of this scepticism is especially serious, but it needs to be worked on". Some industry observers are less optimistic. "I don't think the military side of things will disappear as quickly as [the EC] likes to think," warns Joe Magee, vice-chair of labour body the European Transport Federation, noting that this has been an issue in each of his 20 years in the ATC industry.

EC officials working on the single skies project see intra-EU military co-operation - the so-called "second pillar" - as a means to unlock the military problem. "I don't think there should be any problem at the technical level," says one. The political level is another matter, however. As the official readily admits, there is no precedent to follow, as the second pillar is a new concept. "No one knows how it will work." One possibility is a joint civil and military regulator.

Many who have read the report are asking what this means for Eurocontrol? In particular, what implications does the proposed new EU agency have for Eurocontrol?

On the one hand, the HLG report stresses the continuing importance of Eurocontrol. It affirms, for example, that "the implementation of the single European sky could be managed in co-operation with Eurocontrol by the Community in phases".

It also stresses that Eurocontrol, whose membership reaches beyond the EU, could act as the key forum in moves to extend single skies outside EU borders. "They have great expertise and we'll work in synergy with Eurocontrol," saida Brussels official. Implicit, however, is that Eurocontrol's influence will wane. "It's a very sensitive subject", he agreed.

Who will staff this new body, given the lack of expertise in the Commission itself, is another issue. EC officials admit that this a problem. One possibility, say observers, is that the personnel will be drawn from Eurocontrol itself.

One official close to the report gives some indication of the EC's thinking when he says Brussels "is not happy" with the way Eurocontrol works. "It is a slow, consensual process, which ends up with compromise solutions. It is not effective when you look at the current problems in European ATM," he adds.

The EC is understood to be pushing for the future relationship between Eurocontrol and itself to be based on a system of "mandates". This involves Eurocontrol acting as a "support body" for policies decided at EC-level and - crucially - the EC will set the timescale for these policies.

Reaching consensus

A key issue is the relationship between EU and non-EU states. Eurocontrol represents 29 nations, while the EU has 15 member states. The report states that Eurocontrol could be a useful vehicle for bridging this gap.

The EU's proposed membership of Eurocontrol, seen by the latter as necessary for policy implementation to have a legal basis, is being held up by the row between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar. However, one official notes that, while EU membership of Eurocontrol "would make things easier, the political and economic weight is with the EU states". He adds that Norway and Switzerland "are effectively being treated as EU states".

One observer noted that the EC has been very careful to court the Swiss, who may be interested in resurrecting a plan for a new Swiss/French ATC centre which was scuppered by the French a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Eurocontrol continues to fight its corner. Yves Lambert, the outgoing director general of Eurocontrol, argues that his organisation should be given more teeth, but is well aware that this view is not shared by all in Brussels.

Asked if he can clarify the future relationship of the EC and Eurocontrol, Lambert says, "frankly, no". He adds, "the relationship is not well defined. We still have to clarify details of who is doing what."

Ideally, Lambert sees Eurocontrol and Brussels working along parallel lines. While admitting that his organisation "lacks teeth", he notes that it has traditionally had the technical competence on ATC matters. "Everybody is accustomed to working with Eurocontrol."

Lambert would like to see the Commission provide Eurocontrol with real power. "We want the EU to be associated with this machinery and to endorse it through the legislative framework," he says, adding that obeyance of Eurocontrol decisions should be "mandatory" in the EU.

There are those in Brussels, as Lambert is well aware, who have other ideas. "I am not sure the European Commission is ready to work along these lines, " he says. "It takes two to tango."

Some at Eurocontrol are more scathing. One insider claimed there were only "five or six people in the Commission who know about ATC." He says that it boils down to "a question of trust. Do member states trust Brussels or Eurocontrol?" He adds that they are used to working with Eurocontrol, and might be more suspicious of a body under the auspices of the Commission. This would lead to the process becoming too politicised, he says, slowing everything down. While acknowledging that Eurocontrol needed to be prodded into action, he says that there is a danger that the process will go "too far".

This disagreement between the Commission and Eurocontrol is mirrored by arguments within Eurocontrol's provisional council over the organisation's revised constitution. Some member states have been calling for a division between Eurocontrol's regulatory and service provision functions. This year, Lambert put forward a proposal that would increase the transparency between the two sides of Eurocontrol's activities.

This did not go down well with some member states and a task force has been set up to look into an alternative Swiss proposal which suggests either a separation of Eurocontrol's service provider and regulatory roles, or seeing the service provision carried out by non-Eurocontrol bodies, with Eurocontrol as regulator.

With division between service provision and regulation more predominant in Europe, observers warn that Eurocontrol will have to change. As these providers become more market orientated and jostle for position in a more de-regulated industry, Eurocontrol is under threat. As one industry observer noted, the German service provider, Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), would very much like to get its hands on the lucrative Maastricht centre.

It may have been a long time coming, but the HLG's report could well herald the beginning of a long overdue reform of European ATM. What shape this will take is far from clear.

Report of the High Level Group - Key proposals

2.1 Effective regulation - Need for further and stronger European regulation in the safety, performance, system and airspace design and economic domains - The regulator will define the high level rules and ensure compliance - Reforms should be completed by 2005

2.3 Coherent airspace design - The design and management process must include both civil and military interests - The single European sky should be designed and regulated at a European level, starting with upper airspace and consistent with lower airspace

2.4 Institutional framework - The recognition of the EU institutions as the appropriate regulatory body for the EU and states that have integrated their aviation areas into the EU's

3.2 Airspace management - Airspace regulation should enable fair and non-discriminatory allocation of airspace resources - Phased introduction of the single European sky facilitating new concepts, e.g. free routing - More responsive air traffic flow management through Central Flow Management Unit with a broader mission, better rules and enforcement.

Source: Airline Business