Fears over secret agendas and political opposition are already surfacing as Europe picks its way towards creating a unified airspace. The US experience suggests that they will have to face up to the funding issue if a single sky is to succeed

If anyone had thought that the process of reforming Europe's congested airspace would be plain sailing, they were soon disabused of the idea as French air traffic controllers held a lightning strike at the end of June. Their apparent aim was to send out a clear signal that they would tolerate no talk of injecting competition and privatisation into air traffic control (ATC). The fact that neither is officially on the agenda hardly mattered. Such are the passions and suspicions surrounding the whole debate. If answered they could even kill it at birth.

The timing of the protest was quite deliberate, to coincide with the first report to come out of the High Level Group (HLG), the working party of the good and great of air transport, set up and chaired in person by Loyola de Palacio, European Commission (EC) vice-president and transport commissioner. Its goal is to come up with a long-term solution to the perennial delays which now regularly cripple European airspace each summer. That solution, as Palacio has clearly stated, must centre on her vision of a single European sky.

In fact, the HLG report, when it finally arrived, hardly contained much to protest over. Rather than the hard proposals for which the airlines had been praying, it settled instead for a broad restatement of goals. Not only that, but everyone in Brussels was at pains to reassure anyone who would listen that privatisation is not on the agenda.

So why were the controllers protesting? For a start they are clearly feeling unloved, overworked and unconsulted, arguing that the real crisis has more to do with lack of resources and a frightening recruitment shortfall than any fragmentation of airspace. Second they question whether the goal of a single European airspace is really the panacea it is painted, pointing to the fact that a unified US system is also a crisis point. Some doubt that Europe is capable of handling any more aircraft. And so to fears of a hidden agenda designed not to improve delays but to cut costs.

The controllers do have a point. A single sky is not necessarily the final answer to all of Europe's woes, even if it is a necessary starting place. Neither is there, as yet, a clear picture of what would come next if and when a Eurocontrol or European Air Safety Agency (EASA)were ever to take up ultimately regulatory authority for European Union states.

Basic work still needs to be done to measure the scale of the problem before hard solutions are put in place. So far the debate has had a curious lack of hard facts, barring the central one that Europe's skies are not at present working. Certainly European ATC needs a sustained injection of long-term investment, but it first needs a body with real authority to co-ordinate that spending and implement solutions in a way that the ultimately voluntary bodies of ECAC and Eurocontrol cannot.

If the US experience proves anything, then it is the need for air traffic services providers to have a degree of financial independence. If US skies are also facing a delays crisis, then it is one caused by a lack of cash. The basic system is sound and handles close to twice the air traffic movements that Europe has so far managed. But it is ageing and operating to full capacity, unable to cope with severe weather problems. In short, it is in dire need of the sort of modernisation that will require heavy funding to the tune of billions of dollars. It is money that politicians have so far failed to vote through and the US Federal Aviation Administration has made not secret of its campaign for financial independence, so that it can start to behave like a private company and make long-term budgets for an overhaul of the ATC system. That is still a long way off. As in Europe, privatisation fears and political opposition are not far beneath the surface.

Privately, some FAA senior officials also believe that there is a lot more that the airlines could do for themselves to ease congestion and that they are too willing to blame the ATC system for delays. For example, after last summer's brush with gridlock on the US East Coast, the Air Transport Association members put together their spring/summer 2000 plan to add extra resources to the FAA's command centre in Virginia and to pool information so that decisions about how to deal with severe weather can be made early on. US airlines are also voluntarily flying their short-haul routes at lower altitudes to clear space higher up.

But such co-operation is no substitute for giving the FAA real power over its own purse strings, and that is an issue that Europe too will have to address if the single sky initiative is to achieve a real impact on delays. Perhaps if such issues were given a thorough public airing it might even clear the air. The high level working group has until the end of the year to come up with its concrete proposals. With the clock still ticking, let's hope that this time they do.

Source: Airline Business