Progress towards single European sky 'too low and too slow'

Competitiveness, cost-effectiveness, growth and sustainability of Europe's entire air transport system is reliant on the single sky project, says Siim Kallas.

By Siim Kallas

08 Oct 2013

Europe has reached a critical phase in its efforts to complete the single European sky (SES), one of the best ways to improve the lives of European citizens: by raising airspace capacity, improving safety and cutting costs. More than 10 years since its launch, the project is still not delivering. Progress has been elusive, a little like a mirage in the desert: whenever you think you are close, it seems to move further away.

I believe that we can still turn the single sky into a success and reality, moving at last from a national patchwork to a genuine network. This is the aim of my proposed SES II+ legislation, with some changes to speed up implementation. The single sky project is too important to be allowed to fail. It is vital for the competitiveness, cost-effectiveness, growth and sustainability of Europe's entire air transport system. Flights in Europe today are too expensive and the extra costs are ultimately paid by passengers. Cost-efficiency is just one of several areas where we are weak; air traffic control is also too expensive and we suffer from a high level of delays.

The SES II+ proposal has attracted a good deal of criticism from some member states, which has surprised me to the extent that I wonder if governments still want to have a single European sky, and if they really believe that today's fragmented airspace is not a problem. There are also views that SES II+ demands 'too much, too soon' from EU countries and that there is no urgency to act. In response, I would say that the achievement level of the single European sky has been 'too low and too slow'.

Given the rising demands on air travel and the aviation industry, time is running out. While Europe's air transport sector handles things competently, our airspace is not ready to cope with the expected growth in traffic. If we leave things as they are, it will face heavy congestion, eventually leading to chaos. The time has come to act. Some have questioned whether it is appropriate to propose reform at a time of economic crisis. But most air navigation service providers are doing fairly well financially, despite the recent downturn in traffic. We should not have to wait until the pain has become so great before we act. It pays to be prepared: a lesson we learned from the volcanic ash cloud crisis.

We also have a capacity and performance issue and it's not going away. The main problem is that Europe's air traffic management (ATM) systems are fragmented and inefficient. While we are not looking for a one-size-fits-all single sky, we do need to make sure that the objectives and conditions across Europe are the same. Airspace users should enjoy the benefits of a genuinely integrated operating airspace. That is how costs will fall, while performance and efficiency rise. Support services like weather forecasts and routing information are vital for both pilots and air traffic controllers. They are also ATM's largest cost driver. We can save a good deal by opening them up to competition under open and transparent procurement rules.

"According to Eurocontrol, flight numbers will rise by 50 per cent from 2012 levels by 2035 – by which date 1.9 million flights will not be accommodated at airports. They will be so crowded that some aircraft will simply be unable to take off or land"

That is not all we are doing. We are putting performance targets where they belong – at the heart of the reform. Raising performance is essential for the success of the single sky, so these targets should be ambitious but also realistic. The projected growth in air traffic will be limited by available capacity at airports. According to Eurocontrol, flight numbers will rise by 50 per cent from 2012 levels by 2035 – by which date 1.9 million flights will not be accommodated at airports. They will be so crowded that some aircraft will simply be unable to take off or land. That is why we proposed a new airports package to deal with this challenge. I strongly hope that, with the help of the European parliament, we will finalise the legislative procedure before the end of this legislature. European aviation needs a system that is not permanently under strain as traffic continues to grow; it must be able to cope in the future.

If we do nothing, Europe's airlines and airports would not only have to reject a large share of demand. They would be exposed to unprecedented delays and cancellations, with much more congestion – which brings increased safety risks and economic costs. We owe it to European citizens to provide an aviation system that is competitive. That will help the European aviation sector to create more jobs in airlines and at airports. The faster the single European sky is implemented, the quicker the expected returns will materialise – to everyone's benefit.

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