The Single European Sky has been given the go-ahead, but its implementation could still be stopped in its tracks

Europe's politicians have taken a leap of faith and drafted the essential instruments to see the Single European Sky (SES) launched. It is no longer just a concept, it is going to happen.

But two months ago those same politicians - the Council of Ministers - faced with giving the project the final go-ahead, lost their nerve at the last minute over what they saw - again - as threats to sovereignty and the freedom of their military to operate in their national airspace. Since that time the European Parliament appears to have been able to calm the council's nerves, and the joint Conciliation Committee has approved the four basic regulations on which the SES will be based.

Building the SES is a process, however, and all that has been laid so far is a foundation stone. No masterplan exists for where the new "functional" airspace sector boundaries will be - that has yet to be thrashed out, and there is no question but that politicians will play a part in negotiations. The airspace redesign does not even exist on the back of an envelope yet, and although the objectives of the SES are clear, the council has definitely not - with this agreement - given the aviation industry and Eurocontrol carte blanche in determining the architecture of tomorrow's skies.

The Parliament which, like the European Commission, has always been in favour of the SES, describes the agreement reached at the Conciliation Committee last week as a "package of four draft regulations aimed at creating a Single European Sky". These consisted of a "framework regulation" and three "implementing regulations" covering air navigation service provision, organisation and use of airspace, and finally interoperability within the air traffic management (ATM) network.

The fence at which the council fell in late October had been military arrangements and "the issue of functional airspace blocks". The latter is the crux of the whole SES concept, so faltering at that point - despite having discussed it for three years - shows just how nervous national politicians remain about putting the SES idea into practice. They want its benefits, but they struggle with the idea of "losing control" of their sovereign airspace. Of course they don't lose sovereignty to a group of air traffic controllers, but the idea still confuses them.

Now the council has adopted the framework legislation it will be difficult to go back, but the politicians could, at any point, stop the SES going forward, which would negate the effect of all that has been done. No-one should be in any doubt that the rules adopted so far are just enabling tools - they have not created anything - and neither operators nor air travellers will notice any changes for better or for worse. The earliest gain is likely to be a single European upper airspace block, which may be in operation within a year, but the new centre-to-centre communications and surveillance integration that would enable users to take full advantage of this seamless upper flight information region does not yet exist. And the detailed regulation enabling restructuring of the more complex lower airspace has not yet been written. The EC, with Eurocontrol's input, has now been cleared to draft the detailed regulations, that is all. It will probably be ready by 2009, the Parliament calculates. And then the politicians could squabble again about putting it into practice.

They could, but that does not mean they will. There has been a lot of airspace resectorisation already under the existing creaking system - some of which has involved control crossing national borders. That process will remorselessly continue without the need to wait for new rules. Indeed, with the morale-boosting adoption of the SES legislation, it may well accelerate.

Under Eurocontrol's co-ordinating hand, Europe's ATM systems have been made gradually more harmonious, and in the last three years the business of reframing the skies has begun with small changes. The bigger changes over Benelux and Germany are in the pipeline. This is not the same as the integrated system that the SES will be, but even without the Council's approval, the step change to a properly integrated system will look gradually easier.

If national politicians panic again as the SES goes forward, there is one way of concentrating their minds. They should stop, for a moment, thinking about preserving the comfortably familiar status quo, and think instead of what stopping the SES would do to their citizens' freedom to travel by air in the future, and the effect on their economies of having an inefficient international means of travel.

Source: Flight International