Reducing the fragmentation of European airspace should increase capacity and cut costs

EU nations miss deadline for removing airspace boundaries

The European single market in air travel is an EU success story, resulting in cheap short haul-flights across whole continent.

But now the European Commission has highlighted a grievous failure in aviation reform: the inability of many member states to drop their national air traffic control prerogatives for a regionalised system. 

The deadline was 4 December. If that had been implemented, the single market in aviation would have been set to work even better.

Airlines are also furious, since the dog-leg routes they are forced to follow as a result of the effective preservation of national systems raises their fuel costs and carbon emissions at a time when they are under economic pressure.

With jealously guarded airspaces, Europe employs more air traffic controllers than the US for about the same area, around 11 million km2, but with far less traffic: 10 million flights a year in Europe compared to 17 million flights a year in the US, according to figures supplied by Lufthansa. 

Lufthansa, which has ruthlessly cut running costs since 2009, argues that there has been no incentive for national governments to reform their air traffic control services because they have been able to pass the full costs of their services on to the airlines - and, ultimately, the passengers.

IATA, the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines’ interests, says governments are just paying lip service to the legislation. 

“They have turned this key administrative reform into a box-ticking exercise and continue to operate their air navigation service providers in silos,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general, in a statement.

The guiltiest nations are France, Germany and the Mediterranean states. 

Britain, in contrast, does quite well.

Under the Commission’s plan, the 38 national airspace organisations are to be consolidated into nine ‘Functional Airspace Blocks’.

The FAB covering Ireland and Britain has been operating since 2008, while Denmark and Sweden have gone a step further and formed a joint company for integrated air traffic control services. 

But elsewhere progress has been patchy. To be fair, the UK-Ireland block, dealing with only two member states, was probably easier to implement than some others.

The complicated central European FAB, covering Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany, is only “partially ready” - which may be a bit of a euphemism. 

Spain and Portugal, which are due to share a FAB in southwestern Europe, have not even signed a cooperation agreement yet.

The Commission has promised it will launch letters of formal notice against non-compliant states.

Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said: “Fragmented airspace has imposed extra costs of €5 billion a year.

“That is an appalling waste of time and money and puts an unnecessary extra burden on the environment.”

However, it is the member states that are ultimately in the driving seat, and the European Parliament’s monitor of the aviation reform, Georg Jarzembowski, says transport ministers don’t take the issue seriously.

Questions concerning sovereignty of airspace are the main concern, while the powerful air traffic controllers’ unions resist efficiency drives that would lead to job cuts.

Governments are also reluctant to allow foreign air controllers potential control of airspace above their military installations.

The airlines, though, will continue to emphasise the costs of delayed reform to the overall economy.

“Cost efficient air transport infrastructure is important to the 7.8 million jobs and €475 billion in European business supported by the air transport industry,” said IATA’s Tyler.

“Only a lack of political will is getting in the way.”

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