The mid-term report from the European Commission's high level working party, set up to mould together Europe's fragmented air traffic control system, did not quite deliver the decisive blow that airlines had been hoping for, but the battle for a single air space has begun in earnest.

Report by Colin Baker in London and Alan George in Brussels

The war may be far from over, but the battle lines have been drawn in the fight to reform Europe's fragmented airspace. The latest skirmish came as the high level task force, set up by Brussels at the start of the year, issued a mid-term progress report on its work to resolve the region's chronic Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays. Although the report stopped well short of the hard proposals that the airlines had been hoping for - settling instead for little more than a broad position statement - that did not stop French air traffic control from holding a lightning one-day strike in protest.

Expectations had been raised that the report might have gone much further, especially given that the so-called High Level Group (HLG) was personally set up and is chaired by Loyola Palacio, EC vice president and transport commissioner. Much to the delight of the regions airlines, she had launched the HLG with talk of her "single sky" vision, ending the national divisions that still dog control of European airspace. As a first step, the promise was for the HLG to put forward "practical proposals" when it handed in its mid-term report to the European Council of national transport ministers in June. In the end it was July.

In anticipation of a major announcement or two, the Airports Council International (ACI) Europe had joined with the Association of European Airlines (AEA) to hold their own high level forum in Brussels on 11 July. In the event, there were few concrete proposals to debate. However, the forum clearly highlighted at least three clear obstacles that need to be overcome if the single sky concept is to become reality.

First, air traffic controllers, and some national governments are wary of what they see as a trojan horse for privatisation. Second comes the tricky constitutional issue of which body could take on responsibility as regulator for a single European system. Third, there is still the perennial problem between civil and military users.

Despite the apparent lack of meat in the mid-term report, Brussels remains confident that it can deliver hard proposals before the end of the year. "The group has made fast progress and a very positive climate has emerged," said Daniel Calleja, Palacio's head of cabinet, at the ACI/AEA forum. But he concedes that concrete initiatives are needed and that the HLG has "not got there yet."

Privately, however, Brussels insiders are more sceptical that this timeframe can be met. One senior observer admits that the HLG did not make the progress expected and after seven months of meetings has achieved little more than "agreement that the present situation cannot continue". He adds that the initiative is likely to continue running into vested interests from among national governments and their civil aviation directorates - both of which are represented on the HLG.

Many of the group's discussions are said to have been "difficult" and a particular problem has been the reluctance of some bigger states - such as France - to contemplate ceding to Brussels effective sovereignty over their airspace. Calleja says the issue of national sovereignty has been an impediment to progress and adds: "If the political will is there, I can't see a problem."

ATC unions have also been less than enthusiastic about the single sky concept - even if not all were as quick to strike as in France. Brussels recognises that having the unions on board would smooth the progress of the project and has been bending over backwards to reassure them. "The Commission is determined to involve the unions in this issue and has done so from the beginning," says Calleja. Unions and other "social" partners do sit on various HLG sub groups.

However, the controllers' unions remain to be convinced by the reassurances or the promised benefits of a single sky. Joe Magee, ATC adviser to the European Transport Workers Federation, claims that there is no evidence that the single sky will solve the delay problems, describing it as "unproven".

Privatisation fears

The underlying union opposition appears to centre on deep suspicions that a single sky reform is merely the first step along a road that is designed to lead towards wholesale privatisation and competition between Air Traffic Service (ATS)providers. It was that fear which lay behind the French ATC strike and resurfaced repeatedly at the forum.

Calleja says that "privatisation is not on the agenda" and never has been. He is backed up by Ben van Houte, head of the single sky project at the EC, who adds that the issues of privatisation and corporatisation were discussed because of the trend among European ATS providers towards this type of operation, and nothing more.

However, the French remain suspicious of the HLG's aims and, crucially, France has just taken over the presidency of the European Union (EU) until the end of the year. While the HLG will continue its work behind the scenes, France is highly unlikely to want to give the single sky initiative time on the agenda and it is not clear whether this could obstruct Palacio's goal of putting definite proposals on the table by this autumn.

The HLG report has already been backed by the transport select committee in the European Parliament, led by MEP Sir Robert Atkins. His report endorsed the single sky concept as long as the principle of subsidiarity was kept to "where ever practical and possible". The cross-party committee deliberately left open the issue of privatisation, although Atkins says that he makes no apology for his belief that it could be a positive solution for creating more effective use of airspace.

Airspace users too are convinced that a more commercial approach from ATS providers is a necessity to create a more efficient system. Johannes Endler, chief financial officer of Frankfurt Airport and part of the German Transport Forum, says: "Privatisation of air navigation services improves performance. Swift adaptation of transport market requirements is enhanced. Further cost reduction will be possible only if state-run air navigation services are transformed into companies organised under private law."

If privatisation becomes the norm among ATS providers, many airlines hope that the more efficient and commercial ATS providers will mount cross-border takeovers of their less efficient counterparts.

This is seen as a prime reason why some ATS providers oppose reform. There was also strong airline support at the ACI/AEA forum for a "reward the best, punish the worst" formula for traffic fees - likely to find more favour with some ATS providers than with others.

"Today's charge structure hardly offers economic incentives for quality improvements or efficiency enhancements," says Endler. "Mechanisms should be installed to allow rewards for well-performing air navigation services and to make deductions from the user charges if capacity bottlenecks are not eliminated in time."

A single regulator

Another key issue is the regulatory framework under which the single sky would operate. The HLG is pushing for regulatory authority at EU level, with Eurocontrol providing the technical back-up. It is widely felt within the industry that a strong regulator is needed if member states are going to implement, and not just say they plan to implement, proposals to improve European ATM.

Palacio is pushing for the proposed European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to be given this regulatory role. EASA was originally intended as a non-EU international certification body to replace the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA), which holds this role in 27 European countries. It is now being proposed that EASA could also include ATS.

Alongside this, the HLG is proposing that EASA becomes a full EU body with clear executive powers. This may require changes to the Treaty of Rome, but Brussels seems increasingly confident that progress can be made - citing the example of the Food Safety Agency (FSA).

The AEA's Neumeister told the ACI/AEA forum it was "not possible" for Eurocontrol to play this regulatory role because of its lack of experience as a regulator. Eurocontrol says this possibility should not be discounted, however. Alex Hendriks, head of airspace management and navigation, warns "there is resistance" among member states to the idea of the EU playing a strong regulatory role.


Support for Eurocontrol comes from Lufthansa, which has been one of the most active European airlines in the campaign for ATC reform. Christoph Klingenberg, senior vice president for operational excellence, says that "more power should be given to Eurocontrol". For example, he says Eurocontrol should be given the power to ensure national ATC centres have adequate staffing levels.

Klingenberg admits that Eurocontrol's administration "has not proved very flexible" and says the organisation must address its "management deficiencies".

One potential barrier to the EU playing a fuller role remains the long-running spat between the UK and Spain over Gibraltar. This is preventing agreement on the EU being granted membership of Eurocontrol, which is seen as necessary if Brussels is going to have the clout to carry out reforms.

Hoped-for progress on the issue of civil use of military airspace has also been slow, with the French again being blamed by many. One source close to the talks said the French had refused to even discuss the issue.

Another issue yet to be clarified is how the "single sky" ties in with work under way on ATM reform by Eurocontrol and the 38-member, Paris-based European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC).

The EC's communication on the single sky called on ECAC, at its meeting in January, to instruct Eurocontrol to take short-term measures to ease pressures during the peak summer season.

The ECAC meeting, attended by transport ministers from the organisation's member states, welcomed the EC's decision to create the HLG.

In a joint press release, ECAC and Eurocontrol affirm that Europe needs an ATM system "organised on a pan-European basis". But it failed to endorse the single sky concept by name and ECAC has not been invited to HLG meetings.

One significant concern is what impact the single sky reforms might have on the EU's neighbours. "Probably they [the 15 EC members] would have the right, under the single market legislation and the Amsterdam treaty, to act outside of the ECAC framework," says ECAC's deputy executive secretary, Jude Maria Dassou. "Where we need to be cautious is in ensuring that the 15 do not push the delay problem on to the peripheral states, or more widely internationally."

One Brussels insider believes the non-EU states question is not as important as it might appear "because by the time they come round to doing anything, they will all be EU members anyway".

Key future developments at Eurocontrol




CFMU enhancement

Improvement of the central flow management unit with emphasis on managing capacity rather than managing demand


Route network development

Rearranging routes to alleviate bottlenecks


8.33 expansion

Expansion of radio frequency for optimum use


ACAS phasing

Airborne collision avoidance systems to be phased in


RVSM introduction

Vertical separation to be reduced from 2,000ft (610m) to 1,000ft above 29,000ft


Free route airspace

Pilot studies to be carried out in Germany, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia



Some routine communication between ground control and aircraft to be automised

Circa 2003+

FDPS interoperability

Development of system to exchange flight information across borders

Circa 2004+


Taking care of the airspace requirements of this multi-modal satellite system

Circa 2008

Source: Airline Business