If the countries in the European Unie are unable to implement efficiency improvements in air traffic management with the Single European Sky (SES) program, then the alternative should be that air traffic management is liberalized. It’s then up to competition between air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to improve the situation. This was one of the main topics at the Airlines 4 Europe (A4E) Aviation Summit in Brussels on March 31. Airlines 4 Europe: liberalization can optimize air traffic management.

It was with some hesitation and embarrassment that Managing Director Thomas Reynaert raised the subject of the Single European Sky again. Making better use of air traffic management can optimize routes and reduce carbon emissions by at least ten percent, all stakeholders in the project agree. But SES has been on the table since its invention in 1999 and 23 years later is still waiting to be introduced, although experiments under the SESAR program are currently being tested.

A4E has raised the subject at each of its Aviation Summits since the lobby group was formed in 2017. Reynaert and airline bosses like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, Lufthansa’s Carsten Spohr, easyjet’s Johan Lundgren, and IAG’s Luis Gallego had to confess that the lobby hasn’t been successful. O’Leary, who has voiced their opinion and frustrations on behalf of A4E before, blamed the lack of progress on individual countries. “Which ones?”, moderator Richard Quest wanted to know at a later panel session. “France, Germany, but others too”, the Irish airline boss replied. He thinks that ATM improvements and the use of new-technology aircraft can reduce emissions by even 32 percent, as Ryanair outlines in its recent sustainability roadmap until 2050.

Even Transport Commissioner is amazed by the lack of progress

Interestingly, even European Transport Commissioner, Adina Valea, confessed she is surprised by the lack of progress made with SES. “When I entered office, SES was the first file I concentrated on and put forward because it makes so much sense. Indeed, I am still amazed that the transport ministers of the EU countries don’t recognize that.” She too blamed individual countries for the situation.

Carsten Spohr criticized politicians for failing to act: “Those who ask us to do more (about the environment) are the same who fail to do anything to get us those ten percent in emission savings.” The result is that the aviation industry is consistently being criticized for being the biggest polluter. O’Leary thinks the industry hasn’t robustly enough communicated what it is doing, like investing billions in fleet renewal or pushing for more sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). He also blames France, which as the current president of the European Council hasn’t done anything to move forward with the Single European Sky.  

With no immediate solution in sight, A4E thinks a different approach is needed: “For twenty years we have made no progress whatsoever on the Single European Sky. Our passengers, our business, our people are entitled to expect efficient airspace. Ninety percent of the delays in the past twelve months were caused by air traffic control”, said O’Leary. “We cannot, with record-high fuel prices, continue to waste fuel as a result from this fragmented ATM. We need Single European Sky and we need European governments to deliver.”
“If we can’t have the SES, then let’s liberalize air traffic management. Let’s allow national ATC providers to compete against each other to provide more efficient services at lower prices,” O’Leary said.

Reynaert blames the lack of progress on the very strong positions that unions have in some countries. “If you want to digitalize, which is crucial in this sector, you are instantly meeting opposition. People are afraid to change. It’s a lack of political willingness.” He thinks that changing the system to a cross-border ATC will result in more efficiencies.” Eurocontrol could have a role in this.

Protection against strikes

A4E also calls for the protection against national ATC strikes. Too often, controllers in notably France and Italy are calling out strikes that hurt international overflights. “The French, cleverly, use national legislation to protect domestic flights but it are all the overflights that take the cancelations and delays. If we have a truly single market, Europe can and must these overflights”, O’Leary said on behalf of A4E. “When the French want to go on strike, let the French bear the consequences. But we shouldn’t delay flights from Italy to Ireland or from Scandinavia to Spain simply because the French are on strike.”

Like IATA before, A4E also opposed the initiative by ANSPs to pass the €5.4 billion bill for missed revenues in 2020 and 2021 due to fewer flights during the pandemic on to airlines, who pass it on to their passengers. “We shouldn’t be obliged to pay for services that we didn’t use”, said Michael O’Leary. As government-owned organizations, the service providers should refer to their states for bailouts and financial aid. IATA Director General Willie Walsh said last year that ANSPs should either be helped by government-backed loans or seek commercial loans on the market.

Read an interview here with Thomas Reynaert on the failed lobby for the Single European Sky and the proposal for liberalization.

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Richard Schuurman
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Active as journalist since 1987, starting with regional newspaper Zwolse Courant. Grand Prix reporter in 1997 at Dutch monthly Formule 1, general reporter Lelystad/Flevoland at De Stentor/Dagblad Flevoland, from 2002 until June 2021 radio/tv reporter/presentor with Omroep Flevoland.
Since mid-2016 freelance aviation journalist, since June 2021 fully dedicated to aviation. Reporter/editor AirInsight since December 2018. Contributor to Airliner World, Piloot & Vliegtuig. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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