When European transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc announced the EU aviation strategy, most stakeholders reacted with restrained optimism. It was a long-awaited document that provided a holistic vision for the sector.
Two years on, with specific actions and legislative proposals on the table, we are realising again how difficult it is to bring the EU aviation community together around common European ideas and goals.
The EESC exploratory opinion issued in 2015 - before the Commission published its strategy - concluded that as per stakeholders’ expectations, the EU should focus on promoting the competitiveness of the aviation sector.
In order to maintain its global leadership, the European aviation sector needs closer cooperation within its value chain, deeper integration and consistent strategy implementation. The Commission largely shares this view and has focused on the role of European aviation as a major enabler for growth and high-quality jobs.
Implementation of the strategy has been most successful in the field of innovation and investments in digital technologies. The SESAR joint undertaking is a success, with dozens of innovative solutions in the process of implementation. It is a successful pan-European R&D programme; a model of public-private partnership and efficient cooperation between industry and academia.
The recent digital transport summit in Tallinn confirmed that the ongoing digital revolution will have a significant impact on aviation. Europe’s lead in innovation gives us the competitive edge that our aviation so desperately needs. This was also underlined in the November 2016 Warsaw declaration regarding drones.
It’s clear that international aviation agreements negotiated by the EU provide more leverage than those that an individual member state could achieve. Deals such as those currently being discussed with ASEAN or the Gulf states will, when concluded, provide significant opportunities for European carriers and the entire industry.
The revision of the regulation on unfair pricing practices in the air transport sector is also an important component of the strategy. The EESC will vote on its opinion on this proposal in January. The new proposal provides a more efficient defence of fair competition and a level playing field, but certain issues remain to be clarified.
What measures could the Commission undertake to ensure compliance with international obligations by a third country? What if a third party fails to abide by the basic principles of labour or consumer protection or if environmental standards are not respected? How effective will the Commission’s intervention mechanism be?
There has been disappointing progress on tackling barriers to growth, for reasons that are largely out of the Commission’s hands. The revisions to the regulation on passenger rights and slot regulation both remain blocked in Council. Progress on completing the single European sky is also limited, due to a lack of political will among member states.
On the other hand, an important tool has been introduced - the connectivity index. When properly used, it will help identify connectivity bottlenecks and increase network efficiency. The Commission is also trying to address the issue of disruptions caused by industrial action through non-binding guidelines. The EESC believes a network manager is best positioned to address this problem in close cooperation with member states.
There have been a number of positive developments on maintaining high EU standards. The International Civil Aviation Organisation agreement on adopting global market-based measures is a significant step towards addressing climate change at international level.
The EU’s leading role in reaching this agreement is self-evident. The revision of basic air safety rules, including the agreement on the European Aviation Safety Agency, reached recently at the interinstitutional level, provides for even higher safety oversight standards.
The legislative proposal on drones was widely welcomed by stakeholders. It addresses safety concerns and provides a predictable regulatory environment for this rapidly growing branch of aviation industry. Will the sector deliver?
The second EESC opinion, published after the Commission published its strategy, concluded that active involvement of the entire sector will be key to the strategy’s success. Airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, member states and the aeronautic industry must have real incentives to implement the strategy. This recommendation has only been realised to a limited extent.
We are witnessing deepening divisions between stakeholders and a kind of blame and shame game on ‘who earns too much’ and ‘who should pay more’ and ‘why not us’. This is deeply disappointing, particularly given the European aviation sector’s improved results. After years of turbulence, the industry is finally growing at a good and stable pace.
The global aviation market is changing rapidly and disruptively. The EU needs to implement its aviation strategy and for this, strong inclusive Commission leadership is necessary. We are on the right path, but European aviation stakeholders must finally start to think and act European. Running ritual wars will get us nowhere.