Social, political and technological obstacles hindering single European sky implementation

A European Union that has eliminated borders on the ground cannot continue to maintain them in the sky, explains Gesine Meissner.

By Gesine Meissner

17 Apr 2015

Over a decade since its inception, the single European sky (SES) remains far from being in place. This is regrettable because the reorganisation of European air traffic control would have many benefits. It is hard to understand why some planes are forced to zigzag in the sky because of national fragmentation of airspace or vast military areas, instead of using the most direct route from point A to point B. As a European union, we cannot maintain borders in the sky while they have been removed on the ground.

Therefore, I welcome the SES II+ initiative the commission launched in June 2013 in order to speed up the implementation of the single European sky, but the main obstacles remain unchanged. One problem is that the idea of the single European sky was born when there was congestion in our skies.

Back then, flight paths had to be organised in a more efficient way in order to cope with growing numbers of flights.

Today, we no longer have any congestion and there is less pressure for national authorities to implement the project.

Now, more attention is being paid to the environmental benefits of SES. Direct flight paths would save fuel and, ultimately, emissions. This could mean a cost reduction for airlines and, perhaps, lower ticket prices for consumers, given that fuel costs account for a large portion of the price of a ticket.

With SES in place, emissions are expected to be cut by 10 per cent. Airlines argue that this would be a much more effective measure to reduce emissions from aviation than the eternal fight over the European aviation emissions trading system. European airlines have been lobbying very heavily for the single European sky. In addition to fuel savings, they expect fewer air traffic management (ATM) costs.

Following the SES framework, a more efficient organisation of air traffic control should cut ATM costs by 50 per cent. Airlines have complained that ATM costs are not falling yet. As European airlines have difficulties in keeping up with their heavily subsidised competitors from the Middle East, they have insisted on these financial benefits that they have been promised by SES.

However, on the side of air traffic controllers, implementation is still very lengthy. One problem is that the differences in how air traffic control is organised in the member states should not be underestimated. In the UK, it is privatised, in France, it is a public administration, and in other countries, national airspace is controlled by the military. 


On this basis, it is very difficult to set up cooperation and agree on a common organisational structure inside a functional airspace block (FAB), as well as common quality standards and prices for their services. Therefore, things have been moving very slowly and the deadline set by the commission for the implementation of the FABs - 2012 - was impossible to meet.

For example, Germany, France, Switzerland and the Benelux countries are expected to build a FAB in order to organise air traffic in this area in a more efficient manner. More generally, it is always tricky for member states who mostly own national air traffic control services to give up sovereignty over their national airspace.

And member states are not the only ones to have shown reluctance, as air traffic controllers' trade unions also strongly oppose SES. They fear jobs will be lost and salaries will be cut as a result of reorganisation and task-sharing with neighbouring services or the European air traffic controllers at Eurocontrol. This is why they regularly go on strike to prevent the implementation of the SES. 

Seeing as they are able to shut down whole national airspaces, forcing airlines to make huge detours and cancel all national flights, air traffic controllers have significant bargaining power. 

Therefore, the commission has done the right thing by trying to address their concerns by underlining social dialogue in the SES project.

Considering all the obstacles SES must face, it is even more upsetting that its technological pillar has recently been weakened.

The single European sky air traffic management research (SESAR) project is developing a new generation of Europewide ATM systems to provide European air traffic controllers with a common technology to work with. This is more than needed, as most of the current systems are over 50 years old.

To support the deployment of the new technology, €3bn has been earmarked in the connecting Europe facility, which was created only a year and a half ago to co-finance transport infrastructure. 

The new Juncker investment plan is now planning to take part of its resources from this facility, also reducing the funds available for the deployment of SESAR infrastructure by €500m. 

This is not a consistent way of strengthening European transport infrastructure. Parliament's transport and tourism committee is therefore opposing the idea cutting the facility, but it will be a tough fight.

On SES II+, we must wait for Spain and the UK to settle their dispute over Gibraltar – this has been blocking the aviation files in council for many years now. Yet it is a good sign that council still managed to agree to a common position last December, after parliament had already voted on its position in March last year. Now, we wait for the trilogues to start on SES II+.


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