How the EU's COVID recovery can accelerate the transition to a greener aviation sector

There is an opportunity to build a cleaner and more resilient aviation sector writes French ITRE Committee MEP Christophe Grudler.
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By Christophe Grudler

Christophe Grudler (FR, RE) is a vice-chair of Parliament’s Sky & Space Intergroup

04 Mar 2021

This past year, no industrial sector in the EU has been spared. Nevertheless, with 51 percent of aircraft grounded and travel restrictions in place all around the world in a bid to keep the virus from spreading, the hit on the aviation sector is unprecedented.

The numbers are striking: according to Eurocontrol, airlines, airports and service providers have suffered losses of more than €56bn and 191,000 jobs - not counting indirect job losses in other sectors.

Recent studies show that our economy should not expect to be ‘back to normal’ before 2024 at the earliest. Having said that, 2021 should already see some improvement and the acceleration of the vaccine deployment is promising.

The gravity of the situation, of course, calls for support for the recovery of the aviation sector, but it is also a unique opportunity to rebuild it in a more resilient, competitive and environmentally friendly way. 

First, coordination must be the foundation of this recovery effort. It is unrealistic to expect a swift recovery and reorganisation of air traffic if different airlines operate according to different standards - for example, in health requirements for passengers.

I believe that there has been a tremendous effort made at EU level to set up and implement common guidelines, such as an EU-wide map to identify countries at risk. But in view of the full recovery of air traffic and free movement of people, we need to go further. 

“According to Eurocontrol, airlines, airports and service providers have suffered losses of more than €56bn and 191,000 jobs - not counting indirect job losses in other sectors”

One way of enhancing coordination could be a European ‘vaccination passport’. This could, for instance, allow vaccinated individuals to move freely without going through compulsory testing.

However, to avoid discrimination, this tool should be adopted only when vaccines are widely available to the population and it should account for particular situations that citizens may encounter.

Such a passport, however, is already hard to implement at national level. Furthermore, as the world realises the impacts of human activity on our environment, now is the right time to address the issue of rising emissions in the transport sector, to which aviation has substantially contributed in the past decades. 

The recently unveiled Sustainable and Smart mobility strategy lists the revision of the Air Service Regulation as a priority. Initially scheduled for 2020, the new proposal was delayed by the crisis. The European Commission is now expected to present a new proposal by the end of 2021.

In essence, the regulation structures the whole EU aviation market, from airport charges and slot computer reservation systems, to safety measures and employees’ rights. In a post-COVID era, these rules will have to be compatible not only with the ‘new normal’ but also the more fundamental shift in mindset that the EU Green Deal aims to bring about. 

One of the most pressing issues is the modernisation of the rules on traffic distribution. The recently extended emergency suspension of airport slot allocation rules has proved that these rules are no longer pertinent in terms of competition and are no longer in line with our climate objectives.

It is therefore high time that we definitely put an end to the 80 percent allocation principle. Access to public support and funding mechanisms is another key element here. Many airlines received public financial support throughout the crisis.

However, emergency public support should not be an open door to long-term distortive competition patterns. Therefore, we will need to be careful not to go against the framework on State Aid, particularly when looking at the modernisation of the Air Services Regulatory framework. 

“As we progressively enter the recovery phase, we should see that as an opportunity to accelerate the transition towards a climate-neutral aviation... Here, I believe that Europe can be a leader in the development of the aircraft of the future”

As we progressively enter the recovery phase, we should see that as an opportunity to accelerate the transition towards a climate-neutral aviation sector. This challenge will require huge efforts in research and innovation to create climate-neutral aircraft and fuels at competitive prices.

Here, I believe that Europe can be a leader in the development of the aircraft of the future. The European Union has already shown its willingness to be at the forefront of this endeavour: the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking is proving to be central to the emergence of green technologies

New fuels such as hydrogen are promising, and it is a good thing that the European Union is accelerating its development. I am convinced that our leaders in this sector, such as Airbus, as well as our numerous highly innovative SMEs, have the potential to cooperate to offer the Union its first zero-emission aircraft by 2035. 

Finally, we should also mention the importance of the Single European Sky initiative, which will help reduce emissions through shorter journeys. In this regard, I hope we can quickly adopt the new and ambitious framework proposed by a European Commission in September 2020.

The crisis is not over, and the recovery of the aviation sector will take time. However, I believe that we should use this opportunity to build the European aviation of tomorrow, a cleaner and ever more resilient aviation that can benefit all Europeans.

Read the most recent articles written by Christophe Grudler - EU Industrial Strategy: Building a more resilient Europe

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