Mike Ambrose, Director General of the European Regions Airline Association, says European politicians should be solving problems, not causing them
Is current European aviation legislation placing an unfair burden on the industry?
The European Commission and Parliament have failed to recognize that aviation is in trouble. They must moderate their regulatory zeal until the industry has recovered.
They should adhere to their own principle of “better regulation”. There must be a problem before they can talk about solutions. The decision to hire a consultant to study slot allocation is a prime example of jumping the gun.
All airlines and businesses are looking to increase their efficiency and are examining every part of their business model. The Commission should apply the same rigorous reappraisal of their strategy. There is no more business as usual for anybody.
Individual states must help. Look at the Single European Sky (SES). States are watering down proposals to protect their own vulnerabilities. And the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) should be funded by public means and not charges. Airlines should pay when something gets delivered.
Additionally, the high hopes we had for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have not been followed through. The idea was to utilize economies of scale so we don’t need the same level of resources at the national level. But the states haven’t allowed that to happen and we now have an additional level of bureaucracy with no road map for the future.
Do you fear the slot allocation consultant will recommend auctions?
It is possible. A consultant has been appointed in the belief it will lead to progress. But what exactly constitutes progress? We have met with the consultant and it has a job to do, but any revisions cannot shoot aviation in the foot. There is no point in simply taking a slot from one airline and giving it to another.
Regulation 261—which concerns passenger rights—is also under review. Would you welcome a change to this piece of legislation?
Regulation 261 is a truly inept piece of legislation. It was produced in a hurry and with an unwarranted level of vitriol. In 2003, we warned that the legislation would have disastrous consequences if applied to a major shutdown.
There is a parallel to 261 in proposed accident and investigation legislation. As drafted, it requires airlines to provide psychological counselling to all passengers involved in an accident, with no time limit. What we are talking about is an unlimited liability applied to no other mode of transport. It is preposterous for rules to be applied in this way. Furthermore, 261 and the proposed accident and investigation legislation are discriminatory: a six-hour delay is a six-hour delay whether the journey is by train or by aircraft, and a victim is a victim by the same account.
The EU is also discussing compensation for airlines after the ash cloud. Do you think this will happen?
I fear it won’t. The simple fact is that governments have no money to give. Airlines do have a good case. Infrastructure suppliers weren’t prepared and they should have been. You can’t just say there’s never been a volcanic eruption before. That’s not an excuse, and in any case we have had something with exactly the same characteristics. Chernobyl shut down airspace and led to a number of restrictions.
If an airline has the proper skills to conduct an assessment of the situation and works in a structured manner with the national authority they should have the power to decide whether to fly. We have managed to migrate opinion towards this option. We don’t need to put pressure on pilots if we have a sensible policy in place.
The European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) also seems in need of sensible policy.
The ash cloud problem has been compounded by Commissioner Connie Hedegaard. 2010 is a baseline year for carbon allowances for the EU ETS. But the Commissioner says airlines will not be allowed to make adjustments to the measurements required. Yet the ash cloud shutting down airspace for several days will lead to a permanent distortion. Carriers in north-west Europe cancelled far more flights than those based in the south-east of Europe. And all airline results will have been affected. All the data used between 2012 and 2020 will be wrong as a result. It would be easy to normalize the figures. Instead, the continued existence of some airlines will be in jeopardy because they will be unfairly punished by this discrimination.
Putting taxes on top of the ETS makes no sense either. I’m not skeptical about governments wanting to be environmentally friendly, but I am skeptical about the way they use this as a defining rationale for aviation taxes. The taxes are just an excuse for additional revenue. The money is not used for environmental measures.
In terms of regulation, what do European airlines need for a sustainable future?
There needs to be a complete reappraisal of the regulatory program. Political idealism is unaffordable. We are in danger of losing an essential ingredient for a sustainable future and that is people who will invest their money and future in the industry. Aviation’s considerable strengths—from labor skills to technical advances—are being put at risk.