Europe may have signed up to the principle of a Single European Sky, but now it faces reality it is showing signs of nervousness

The Eurocontrol Single European Sky (SES) programme - an essential policy if Europe is to provide capacity to meet future demand safely, looks as if it is falling foul of politicians' fears of loss of sovereignty over their skies. But is the programme merely stumbling or completely falling over?

Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio's office is confident that this is a stumble. De Palacio is passionately pro-SES, as is the European Parliament, so the programme has powerful champions. It was always predictable, however, that the sovereignty issue would have to be resolved in detail, country by nervous country. The amazing thing is that Europe had accepted the SES concept unanimously. But concepts are easy. Reality, when it stares politicians in the face, is more complicated.

So seeing the brakes put on an accepted concept while politicians get their heads around the fact that the provision of air traffic services (ATS) needs to have absolutely nothing to do with a state's sovereignty over its airspace is certainly not a surprise.

No new pan-European project in an organisation as complex as the European Union - plus the 26 other states signed up in principle to the SES - could ever be expected to sail through all its stages without the threat of a capsize. Threatening capsize is how politicians force concessions and compromises to ensure their state does not "lose out" in some way - real or perceived.

That is the point that Gilles Gantelet, de Palacio's spokesman, makes. He has a list of other big European projects that had their political brakes slammed on during their early stages, but were nevertheless implemented after negotiation and compromise. Opening up the energy market, Gantelet points out, took 10 years to achieve, but it is now rolling past 70% implementation and gathering speed as it goes. The SES is only two years old, although the plan to have its basic structure in operation by 2004 is probably a little optimistic.

It is simply realistic to recognise that politicians cannot be seen to ride roughshod over their electorate's fears and prejudices. Air traffic control unions are universally opposed to the SES, not because it is a bad idea operationally, but because they fear privatisation - which de Palacio insists is neither necessary nor what the project is about. At the very least unions fear job cuts or relocation.

Controllers have a great deal of power, both in their capability to halt air transport, but also with the media, through which they can scare the public with predictions of profit-making private companies cutting safety corners. The fears of both controllers and the public have to be calmed through the supply of real information. Europe has more than 40 ATC centres today, and that number has to be reduced. In due course it has to be decided, through negotiation, which centres shall survive, which close, and where new ones shall be built.

There are countries that particularly have to have their fears quelled, especially if cultural or political issues are involved. Portugal is a case in point. Its air traffic control is carried out by its military, and it would dovetail better with the wider European way of doing things if this were to change - so it needs time. Also it would fear, as usual, big neighbour Spain taking over - and possibly the closure of its own centres with the exception of its oceanic responsibilities. The kind of solution that needs to be thrashed out in Eurocontrol's forum is whether one of the two or three future ATC centres that will share responsibility for the Iberian peninsula's ATM should be in Portugal. France is another case - always nationalistically intransigent and protective of its institutions, but not, in practice, impossible to persuade. Besides which, it is a large ATM area, and it might be logical for it to house a couple of centres at least, and possible for its operational ATM borders not to vary massively from its political borders.

It is this kind of accommodation that the European Commission and Eurocontrol have to negotiate to get all of Europe voluntarily on board the SES ship. Co-operation is essential to achieve the SES aims of a federal system designed to satisfy the purposes of efficiency and safety, not the perpetuation of national prejudices and practices. Maintaining the existing system would make as much sense as the 50 states of the USA running independent ATC systems. So the EC, the Council of Ministers and Eurocontrol must deploy whatever soothing words and careful divisions of responsibility it takes to make the SES work.

Source: Flight International