Airlines have commended EU transport commissioner Adina Vălean for taking a clear stance on the urgent need to progress the long-delayed Single European Sky Project (SES) during the meeting of the EU’s transport ministers on Monday in Brussels. Besides Vălean, Spain, Ireland, Finland, and Malta openly urged fellow states to stop blocking progress of the SES, which is intended to make air traffic management more efficient. “It’s long past time for talking and it is disgraceful that some member states continue to block a European solution that would unlock up to a ten percent reduction in aviation emissions while also advocating for flight bans and for tearing up the successful single aviation market,” commented Thomas Reynaert, managing director at airline trade body Airlines for Europe (A4E).
“Commissioner Vălean has it right when she says that a ban on flights under 500 kilometers would deliver less for the environment than implementing SES2+,” he added. “Member states have an obligation to stop putting national interests ahead of European interests and deliver for European passengers, European airlines, and, most importantly, the planet.”
Operators have increasingly expressed frustration at the continuing fragmentation and lack of efficiency of Europe’s air traffic control services, which mean that their aircraft are flying longer than necessary routes. Efforts by the European Commission to streamline the patchy network of national air navigation service providers and ATC centers have consistently faced roadblocks from most member states—mainly, but not solely, France and Germany, which jointly account for a large part of European airspace—that want to retain sovereignty over their airspace and the revenues it generates while ATC unions fear the loss of jobs.
Speaking to reporters following an A4E CEO meeting in Brussels last week, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr pointed out that during the pandemic the airline burned 16 percent less fuel on the same routes it operated pre-Covid because it could fly direct routes. Luis Gallego, the head of International Airlines Group, said it was inexplicable that airlines invest in new technologies, fuel-efficient fleets, and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to reduce their environmental footprint while national governments failed to do the one thing they could easily do to reduce aviation CO2 emissions, namely deliver on the SES. Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary described the SES as “20 years of single failure” and urged the separation of lower and upper airspace. “Let Eurocontrol handle the overflights so when there is a national ATC strike in France we can continue to overfly the country,” O’Leary said.
Aviation was largely absent at today’s meeting of EU transport ministers and air transport discussions were limited to a state of play because the EU co-legislators—Parliament, the Council (member states), and the Commission—have not yet reached agreements on key legislative proposals. They include the SES2+ and several Fit for 55 proposals to align aviation with the EU’s climate goals of reducing CO2 by 55 percent by 2030, such as ReFuelEU (which includes a SAF blending mandate), the revision of the EU emissions trading system, and the review of the EU taxation directive (which envisions a tax on aviation fuel). A SES2+ trilogue is scheduled for December 7.
For A4E, the SES2+ should be performance-based with an “independent and strong” European regulator empowered to take action, a demand also expressed by IATA. “Teams at the World Cup expect independent referees. Air traffic management should be no different,” IATA v-p for Europe Rafael Schvartzman noted. “The 2020 commission proposals were clear that countries shouldn’t be marking the homework of their own [air navigation service providers]. They should submit their performance to be judged by an independent body, setting transparent and efficient targets to help cut emissions and delays.” A4E also demands that the new legislation ensures that air navigation service providers work in a competitive environment, thereby reducing or regulating existing monopoly situations, and air traffic controllers’ licenses should be disconnected from geographic locations, at least for en-route airspace.