IATA Urges EU To Act On Airspace Harmonization

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Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

The EU law-making process is approaching a key step for an acceleration of the Single European Sky initiative—a joint effort to harmonize Europe’s airspace—and IATA is losing patience.

The lobbying group is pressing the European Council—which represents member states—to support the European Commission (EC) proposal for streamlined air traffic management (ATM). Under the EC’s idea, regional cooperation between air navigation service providers (ANSPs) would be centrally steered. Eurocontrol’s Network Manager will have greater authority in the infrastructure. Eurocontrol is the organization in charge of ATM in the EU and 14 neighboring states.

The next Transport Council is scheduled for June 3. The Single European Sky project faces collapse if European states do not support the EC’s proposals to reboot the stalled initiative, IATA said. 

“The Commission has been trying to deliver the benefits of the Single European Sky since the early 2000s,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said. “But state inaction has meant that none of its targets have been met. New legislation, as proposed by the EC, is the only way to force the reform and improvements that are desperately needed. But the intransigence and selfishness of key EU states and their ANSPs threatens to collapse the latest Commission effort.”

A key reason for the stalling of discussions since 2015 was the disagreement between the UK and Spain over the status of the Gibraltar airport, according to the EC. “Following Brexit, this obstacle no longer exists,” the EC asserted.

Moreover, some member states compete in navigation service fees to attract more flights over their territories.

“The Single European Sky has so far failed because ANSPs have had inadequate targets and insufficient independent oversight,” Walsh said. “The Commission’s proposal provides a remedy by giving regulators the power to enforce robust performance targets.”

Under the EC’s proposal, a professional European economic regulator–to be integrated into EASA–will review the performance of en-route services. Strengthened national supervisory authorities will be in charge of the performance review for terminal services.

“The Network Manager will become more important in managing the modernization of the ATM infrastructure,” the EC said. ANSPs will have to deliver on the capacity plans they announce. “All stakeholders—airlines, airports and air navigation service providers—will have to act jointly in the interest of the network,” the EC added.

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, delays affected large parts of Europe’s airspace and airports. They are remembered as the summers of travel chaos.

“The Network Manager developed a number of measures to address the capacity crisis,” the EC said. “Experience showed the essential role played by the Network Manager, but also the need to strengthen its coordination function and to ensure that the interests of the network prevail in both day-to-day and crisis management.” New functions, such as optimizing airspace design and air traffic flow and capacity management, have been added to the Network Manager’s responsibilities.

The EC also proposes to base air navigation charges on the airspace user’s environmental footprint. IATA expects EU aviation emissions to be cut by 10%. In 2019, delays alone led to 11.6 million metric tons (12.8 million tons) of excess CO2, according to the EC. “Meanwhile, obliging pilots to fly in congested airspace rather than taking a direct flight path entails unnecessary CO2 emissions, and the same is the case when airlines are taking longer routes to avoid charging zones with higher rates,” it added.

“Planes are sometimes zig-zagging between different blocks of airspace, increasing delays and fuel consumed,” Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean said. “An efficient air traffic management system means more direct routes.”

In addition, it is hoped digitalization will remove the need for local infrastructure to provide air traffic control (ATC) service, making it easier to adapt ATC capacity to demand.

“The COVID-19 crisis makes the efficiency gains of the [Single European Sky] more critical than ever ... If the combined weight of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 crisis are not sufficiently compelling drivers for the Single European Sky, it’s hard to know what could be,” Walsh said.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.