The Single European Sky initiative is aimed at streamlining and upgrading the air traffic management (ATM) hodgepodge that bedevils the 28-nation bloc. The inefficient and fragmented ATM system is badly in need of an overhaul, but the ambitious project has deviated and is now on a zigzag path itself. This has airlines wondering if the approach should be changed.

“I think we failed to provide evidence and prove that it is a concept that can work. Maybe we should be a bit more pragmatic and less political and institutional and explain why it would work,” says Athar Husain Khan, CEO of the Association of European Airlines. “Maybe we should have a bottom-up approach, work with a couple of airline representatives, a couple of willing air navigation service providers [ANSPs], a couple of willing airports and a couple of willing regulators. We have to stop the confrontation and find common ground,” he asserts.

The European Commission (EC) remains convinced of the need to transform Europe’s air traffic management. “With 28,000 air traffic movements a day, we are approaching the limit of what our systems can manage,” warns Violeta Bulc, the new European Union (EU) commissioner for transport. “We are approaching gridlock in the skies; a dire threat for the growth of our economy, the competitiveness of airlines and airports, the mobility and opportunity enjoyed by our citizens. The EU has enough economic problems—I don’t want us to add one more.”

But the EC’s ambitions do not mesh with the decisions of member states and ANSPs. 

There is no impetus for moving ahead with implementation of the Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). With the goal of improving traffic flow while saving costs and flight time, FABs establish common airspace blocks arranged around traffic flows rather than state boundaries. European airspace has been divided into nine FABs and EU members should have implemented their FABs by Dec. 4, 2012.

EU members have been sued by the commission for noncompliance, and there is no agreement on the reduction of air navigation charges for the second five-year reference period (RP2), which started Jan. 1. The ongoing spat between Spain and the U.K. over Gibraltar could delay further efforts on setting an EU-wide cost-efficiency target for RP2 and, more important, the bitter dispute is raising questions on the legality of the—already overdue—endorsement of the  Single European Sky (SES) 2+ legislative proposals by Europe’s transport ministers last December.

Last year the EC sent letters of formal notice to all 28 EU members regarding the long delay in making their respective FABs fully operational. 

There has been an exchange of views and some corrective measures have been taken, an official of the EC’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG Move) says. Yet only two FABs—the Danish-Swedish bloc and the North European airspace bloc covering Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Norway—have fulfilled all criteria and infringement proceedings have been stopped.

The timing of the infringement proceeding was “extremely unfortunate,” believes Husain Khan. National authorities were reviewing the SES 2+ legislative proposals, which the EC introduced in June 2013 to speed up reforms that were planned under the initial SES legislation (adopted in 2004) and the SES 2 package (adopted in 2009) and adapt them to demands by member states to slow the speed of reform. “The court action put the member states even more on the defensive and made them even more adamantly opposed to the SES, sending the performance scheme in the wrong direction,” Husain Kahn says.

On the other hand, he adds, “we need to be fair [about] the EC. A lot of frustration had been building up over the last decade because member states for whatever reason, and there are many, failed to comply, failed to meet deadlines, failed to implement, failed to find any way to constructively deal with the SES. It had a legal tool to react and it used it.”

The EU members reached a compromise on EU-wide cost-efficiency targets for RP2 in the second half of last year, and a reduction of just over 3% each year for five years, year-on-year, was scheduled to go forward to the Single Sky Committee meeting in January. Germany, however, changed its mind and its state-owned ANSP—DFS—submitted a last-minute proposal to increase charges to airlines by 30% for air traffic control services  as of Jan. 1, 2015, to cover previously unaccounted for provisions in controller pensions.

After strong protest from airlines including Lufthansa and Air Berlin, the largest users of German airspace, and the promise of the German government to partly subsidize the pension plan, DFS settled for a 16.6% increase. “It is a clear case of a monopoly service provider abusing its dominant position,” Europe’s main airline associations aver.

Germany has been the most flagrant in increasing, rather than decreasing, charges, but other European countries also have chosen to boost their ATM fees. DG Move has rejected the 2015-19 performance plans of seven other member states—France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Belgium, Austria and Slovakia—at the Single Sky Committee meeting in January. 

Margus Rahuoja, the EC’s director for Aviation and International Transport Affairs, admits the performance plan is an issue. “[It is] not working. Very simply, the challenge for the EC is to make it work,” he told delegates at the EU ATM Master Plan conference in Brussels last December. DG Move intends to have an agreement on the RP2 and the SES 2+ package by summer, although it is not clear how it will foster a deal. It has no legal power to enforce cost efficiencies on ANSPs, most of which are state-owned in Europe, or force member states to agree on the legislative proposals (which were endorsed by European Parliament in March 2014).

In the meantime, airlines are paying the higher charges.

“The analysis of the figures shows that for 2012 and 2013 airlines will have paid an additional €900 million [$1.09 million] compared with the [RFP1] targets adopted for the EU states,” notes International Air Carrier Association Director General Sylviane Lust. “We fear that RP2 will be even worse. It is time the states accept that the SES regulation was meant to lower charges to airlines and not to further increase ANSPs’ profits.”

Yet a top official of DG Move, who spoke to Aviation Week but may not be named under the new Juncker Commission’s external communications policy, believes it is not all bad news. He contends that significant progress has been made and that the SES is a reality viewed in a wider context. “Military involvement and sovereignty are sensitive issues. Today we have a flexible use of airspace in Europe; that is a mind shift. We have a network manager, we have Sesar [Single European Sky ATM Research] moving into the deployment phase, we have a performance scheme not just for cost efficiency but also for safety, capacity and the environment.”

Others appreciate the successes of the SES more than the participants themselves, the official says, noting that a number of regions “such as Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] admire what we have achieved and would love to have the same level of progress in creating more cooperation between independent nations.” Within Europe the SES project gets a lot of criticism, especially from airspace users, the official says. “Their criticism is focused, they want to pay less.”