The European Commission (EC) has been pressing member states to comply with Single European Sky targets. But as it turns out, many of them do not and that does not bode well for one of Europe's key aviation policy projects, which aims to eliminate national borders, triple European airspace capacity and halve air traffic control costs by 2020.

National interests and powerful labor unions continue to override cross-border collaboration and the economic rationale of forging a single European airspace, of which the first initiatives date to the late 1990s. The EC is now trying to provide the project new traction with a third package of legislative measures in spring 2013 and the threat of legal action against member states for failing to comply with a directive to make nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) fully operational by the Dec. 4 deadline.

“We will take every possible action to make the Single European Sky a reality,” EC VP and Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas vows. “At a time of economic crisis we cannot afford to live with the status quo. Right now the implementation of the reform of Europe's airspace is falling seriously behind. FABs are the cornerstone of the Single European Sky infrastructure and a critical deadline has been missed.”

The establishment of the FABs is spelled out in the comprehensive Single Sky II (SES II) legislative framework. It reorganizes the multitude of air traffic control centers (close to 70) and air navigation service providers (ANSP) (more than 30) into only nine airspace blocks, based on operational requirements and established regardless of national boundaries. The FABs cover the airspace of all 27 European Union member states plus four bordering countries—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Norway and Switzerland (see map).

The FAB agreements were mostly in place by the deadline, yet as International Air Transport Association Director General/CEO Tony Tyler points out, “There are no signs of real consolidation or efficiencies of scale. EU member states have paid lip-service to European legislators and turned this key reform into an administrative box-ticking exercise and continue to operate their ANSPs in silos.” Matthew Baldwin, director of air transport at the EC's Directorate General for Mobility and Transport, describes the FABs as “empty shells” lacking substantive air traffic management agreements within them.

Kallas has publicly criticized the member states, citing their “undue protection of national interests” for the lack of progress implementing a single-European airspace. At the EU Aviation Summit in Cyprus in October, the commissioner asked the inevitable: “Have we really lost a decade? Inefficiencies caused by Europe's fragmented airspace impose extra costs of around €5 billion ($6.5 billion) per year.”

The yearly €5 billion burden to airlines due to en route delay and gate-to-gate inefficiencies averages about €530 per flight (at 2011 prices), according to the Association of European Airlines (AEA). “The elimination of circuitous routings, inefficient flight profiles and holding patterns could reduce airlines' carbon footprint by as much as 12% and save 16 million tons of CO2 emissions annually,” AEA Chairman Bernard Gustin says.

The absence of genuine functioning FABs is only one element where the creation of the SES fails. The so-called Performance Regulation is equally deficient. The performance scheme is organized around fixed Reference Periods (RPs) before which performance targets are set for ANSPs—at EU-wide and national FAB levels. These targets are legally binding at the EU level and are set—initially—to encompass safety, capacity, the environment and cost efficiency. A first reference period runs for three years from 2012-14.

Under the EC's projected performance targets, the European average unit rate for air navigation service charges are to decrease by 3.5% per year from €59.97 per service unit in 2011 to €53.93 per service unit in 2014. The average en route air-traffic-flow management delay per flight target (at EU-wide and national FAB levels) was set at a maximum of 0.5 min. in 2014, down from about 1.1 min. in 2011.

The European Commission bent to pressure from member states and watered down the initial cost-efficiency targets for the “transitional” period of the first RP. The determined unit rate reduction for air navigation service charges was lowered to minus 1.7% in 2012, minus 1.8% in 2013 and minus 3.3% in 2014. However, International Air Carrier Association calculations, based on the figures provided by the member states at the last Enlarged Committee for Route Charges meeting at Eurocontrol on Nov. 21, reveal that in nominal terms the effective chargeable unit rate airlines are paying is decreasing only 0.5% in 2012 and 2014, while increasing by 1.8% in 2013.