Europe-wide aviation agencies have too little incentive to provide value for money, and this will hurt them as much as industry

The European Union has grand plans for its future, and to administrate many of the projects involved it has created agencies. Aviation has its share of these, perhaps the most high profile being Eurocontrol and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

The trouble is that the number of agencies is growing, but the will to fund them is not. There is a healthy tension here. Agencies, not having market discipline to persuade them to be cost-efficient, have to face budgetary stringency. But the European Parliament has to make funding decisions each year based on what is available, and if that does not rise but the number of agencies does, the result is clear. Agencies are going to have to rein in either their ambitions or their costs.

EASA is a truly important project. Europe needs a central agency with legal clout to enforce the same aviation safety standards for airworthiness and operations throughout the EU. Not just because safety is important, but because the enforcement of high standards in some countries when in others they are lax creates a cost differential for commercial businesses like airlines and airports - the old level playing field issue.

But EASA is suffering from being a young agency with a formidable task and with its location - in Cologne, Germany - only recently decided. The choice surprised many people. Cologne, near to the old West Germany's administrative capital Bonn, is not associated closely with aviation, nor is it close to the EU's administrative heart at Brussels. Technically that should not matter, but location is important to people and perhaps EASA's biggest single problem has been hiring the staff - particularly the technical experts - it needs to do its work. How does an agency attract staff when it cannot tell them where they will have to set up their own homes? Well, that problem should be resolved now because at least the uncertainty has gone.

Money, of course, in the form of attractive salaries, could overcome a little problem like staff shortages. The only trouble is that the EU funding decision in January for EASA and all the other agencies looks as if it will be challenged, and therefore not paid on time or to the amount expected. This is just the kind of problem a fledgling agency does not need.

EASA is supposed to have a core staff of administrators and technical experts, but it is free to dip into the technical expertise of national aviation authorities (NAA) if they have the experience and can spare the manpower. Some of the larger agencies like that of France, Germany or the UK could do that, but they have to be paid for work that is specific to EASA's own tasks, rather than their day-to-day job of aviation oversight and administration that is specific to their own country's needs. However, the agreements between EASA and the NAAs to ratify these relationships has not been satisfactorily set up yet. This means EASA is short of its own staff and cannot call on expertise from the NAAs in its parish.

Meanwhile, EASA is not the only agency that looks likely to face the budgetary pinch. It would be a pity if Eurocontrol were to rein in its ambitions either for the Single European Sky (SES) or for its programme of defining and then enforcing upgraded safety standards for air navigation service providers (ANSP) all over Europe.

The SES is an evolutionary process, but it depends for its success on the push for common standards and their real achievement. The European Commission is trying to enforce deadlines on Eurocontrol's standards programme, some of which are frankly unrealistic because of the amount of help some of the less well-developed ANSPs will need to upgrade. And the help Eurocontrol will have to provide costs it money.

The call by UK Civil Aviation Authority chairman Sir Roy McNulty last week is, basically, for all agencies and ANSPs to remember who they are serving: the public, yes, but they are serving the public by serving and guiding the frontline users - the airlines and other operators. He makes the point that users not only want good, efficient service from agencies and ANSPs, they also want cost-efficient services, but that in the present system there is precious little incentive for this. So the stick of budgetary restraint has to be used rather than the carrot of an incentive-driven system.

National and European agencies and ANSPs are going to have to rein in either their ambitions or their costs, so which is it going to be? No-one questions the objectives set out for Eurocontrol or for EASA, so the answer is crystal clear.

Source: Flight International