Single Sky: Commission acts to unblock congestion in Europe's airspace

- Brussels, Belgium

The European Commission has today acted to speed up the reform of Europe's air traffic control system. The Commission is looking to head off a capacity crunch as the number of flights is forecast to increase by 50% over the next 10-20 years.1 Inefficiencies in Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of close to 5 billion Euros each year to airlines and their customers. They add 42 kilometres to the distance of an average flight forcing aircraft to burn more fuel, generate more emissions, pay more in costly user charges and suffer greater delays. The United States controls the same amount of airspace, with more traffic, at almost half the cost.

EU Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, said: "Our airlines and their passengers have had to endure more than 10 years of reduced services and missed deadlines on the route to a Single European Sky. We cannot afford to continue this way. Today we are strengthening the nuts and bolts of the system so it can withstand more pressure and deliver ambitious reforms even in difficult economic times. We need to boost the competitiveness of the European aviation sector and create more jobs in the airlines and at airports".

The Commission is proposing to update the four regulations creating the Single European Sky (SES), and amend rules governing the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Key elements of the proposals known as SES2+ include:

Better safety and oversight

Safety remains the first priority for aviation. EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) audits have shown great deficiencies in the oversight of air traffic control organisations in the Member States. The Commission is proposing full organisational and budgetary separation of national supervisory authorities from the air traffic control organisations whom they oversee, while at the same time ensuring sufficient resources are given to the National Supervisory Authorities to do their tasks. This will have a very positive effect both on oversight and safety. Many supervisory authorities are currently under-resourced and dependent on the support of the entities they are supposed to oversee.

In the future airlines will have a new role in signing off air traffic control organisations' investment plans to ensure they are better focused on meeting customer needs.

Better Air Traffic Management Performance

The reform of Europe's air traffic management system is driven by four key performance targets: safety, cost-efficiency, capacity and environment. These targets go to the heart of the reform process as they require air traffic control organisations to change and provide better services at lower cost.

In recent years, the delivery on performance targets has fallen significantly short of the overall level of ambition. This is because, under the current system, Member States have the ultimate say on targets and the adoption of corrective measures in case targets are not reached.

The Commission's proposal will strengthen the performance scheme by making the target setting more independent, transparent and more enforceable. It will strengthen the role of the Commission in setting ambitious targets. At the same time, it will increase the independence of the Performance Review Body - as the key technical advisor - and enable sanctions to be applied when targets are not met.

New business opportunities in support services

The Commission is proposing to open up new business opportunities for companies to provide support services to air traffic control organisations. Support services, such as meteorology, aeronautical information, communications, navigation or surveillance services, will have to be separated so they can be put out to competitive tender, in an open and transparent manner, under normal procurement rules. The core air traffic control services are natural monopolies and will not be covered by the new rules.

Support services are currently the biggest cost driver in air traffic management and they can at the moment be procured from monopoly providers without proper assessment of costs and benefits. Conservative estimates indicate that 20% savings can be expected from the introduction of normal public procurement rules.

Enabling industrial partnerships

Functional Airspace blocks (FABs) are intended to replace the current patchwork of 27 national air traffic blocks with a network of larger, regional blocks to gain efficiency, cut costs and reduce emissions. Despite a binding deadline of December 2012 for Member States to establish FABs, none of the 9 FABs which have been created are fully operational. The Commission is currently examining infringement cases against all Member States in relation to FABs, particularly where no progress towards reform is seen the coming months.

However, FABs have so far had rather inflexible constructions. The Commission is therefore proposing to ensure that that the co-operation of service providers through the FABs can be set up in a more flexible way – to allow them to create industrial partnership and work with a wider range of partners to increase performance.

The role of Network Manager (Eurocontrol) will also be strengthened to run centralised services in Europe in a more efficient way. Strengthening the Network Manager means, in particular, that routes can be shortened which in turn reduces fuel burn and overall air pollutant emissions.

What happens next?

The Commission's proposals must be approved by Member States and Parliament before becoming law.

Single European Sky: key facts and figures

European skies and airports risk saturation. Already some 800 million passengers pass through Europe's more than 440 airports every year. Each day there are around 27,000 controlled flights – that means 9 million cross Europe's skies each year. 80% of these flights are operated within the EU.

Today's situation is competently handled by the European air transport sector, but, under normal economic conditions, air traffic is expected to grow by up to 3% annually. The number of flights is expected to increase by 50% over the next 10-20 years.

If we don't do something chaos will reign. Europe would not only have to reject a large portion of potential demand, it would also be vulnerable to delays and flight cancellations on an unprecedented scale. If we continue with business as usual congestion costs will increase around 50% by 2050.

The central problem is that Europe's air traffic management systems are fragmented and inefficient.

EU airspace remains fragmented into 27 national air traffic control systems, providing services from some 60 air traffic centres while the airspace is divided into more than 650 sectors. That means airspace is currently structured around national boundaries and so flights are often unable to take direct routes. On average, in Europe, aircraft fly 42 km longer than strictly necessary due to airspace fragmentation, causing longer flight time, delays, extra fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

In addition, current air traffic management technologies were designed in the 1950s. They are now archaic.

The inefficiencies caused by Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of around €5 billion a year. These costs get passed on to business and passengers. Air traffic control currently makes up 6-12% of the cost of a ticket.

The US air traffic management system is twice as efficient as that of the EU; it manages double the number of flights for a similar cost from a third as many control centres.

Faced with these challenges, in the late 1990s, proposals were formed to create a Single European Sky, removing national boundaries in the air, to create a single airspace:

a) improving safety tenfold,

b) tripling airspace capacity,

c) reducing air traffic management costs by 50%,

d) reducing the environmental impact by 10%.

For further information:

MEMO/13/525 and


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