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Single European Sky - Feel the Force

The Single European Sky is way behind schedule and strong targets with equally strong penalties for non-compliance is the only solution.

According to the European Commission (EC), by 2020 the Single European Sky (SES) will deliver a threefold increase in capacity. This will reduce delays, both on the ground and in the air, improve safety performance by a factor of 10, enable a 10% reduction in carbon emissions, and cut 50% of the airline bill for air traffic management (ATM) services.

But, as the close of 2012 nears, it is widely expected that those numbers will prove to be little more than wishful thinking. Implementation of SES is falling way behind schedule and airlines can’t afford to wait until 2020 for a report card.

By the end of the year, all the Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) should be in place. But none of the nine FABs will meet the substantive requirements of the legislation to optimize airspace, human resources, and technical resources. Cost targets will be missed by the majority of the air navigation service providers (ANSPs). A 2012-2014 4.5% cost-efficiency target was negotiated down to 3.5% by states, and yet the last report from the EC Performance Review Body (PRB) made it clear that most countries will fail to meet even this modest goal.

Just as these failures are becoming apparent, the regulatory framework for the second performance scheme period, from 2015-2019, is being finalized. The deployment model for the SES technology pillar, SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), will set the scene for up to $37.1 billion (EUR30 billion) of investments. Further failures could have a significant impact on Europe’s struggling airlines. Implementing costly new technologies into old airspace architecture cannot be supported.

“We need additional regulatory reform if the promise of a Single European Sky is to be realized,” says Hemant Mistry, Director, Industry Charges, Fuel and Taxation. “There have to be targets, with consequences for non-delivery. Only then will we see a focused commitment by states and institutions.”

Any new approach to SES must also evolve the issue of governance. “The lack of ambition has been built on a situation where states are being asked to reform their own long-standing fragmented and inefficient practices,” stresses Mistry. “It’s a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. The European Commission needs to be supported by a structure that includes the airspace users—the primary investors—in the decision making if they are to ensure ongoing commitment for the huge investment that SES requires.” 

More than one pillar

A key failing to date has been the development of a Master Plan focused only upon the technology arm—SESAR. “SES is far more than that,” says Mistry. “The other pillars must be better detailed and their inter-relationships made clear. We need an overall SES vision where the required contribution from each of the SES pillars is evident.”

These other pillars include the likes of safety and work practices. There are plenty of union negotiations to work through, for example. Each of the components of SES needs a target and clearly identified milestones on the way to the target. And the goals must be enforceable with strong penalties for non-compliance. “We’re confident that the European Commission understands that it needs to adopt this sort of approach and that they know that IATA and in fact the entire airspace user community is ready to support them,” offers Mistry.

Challenges lie ahead. Most obviously, the approach puts greater emphasis on the European Commission to ensure states and institutions deliver in accordance with new targets. This involves stepping into the domain of state legislation, to ensure there are meaningful consequences where institutions don’t step up. But the benefits from a truly single sky for Europe make the effort worthwhile.

“And it’s not a case of ripping up the work done so far and having to start again,” insists Mistry. “Some elements of the SES II package have proved very successful and we can build on that platform.”

The Network Manager function is a case in point. A board co-chaired by the airspace users reports directly to the EC and has adopted a genuine pan-European approach. The benefits can be clearly seen already in terms of network-wide capacity management, and industry observers anticipate further improvements as the function matures.

Project schedule

Europe needs a Single European Sky sooner rather than later. Its carriers will lose $1.1 billion in 2012 according to the latest IATA forecast. The patchwork nature of the region’s airspace is thought to knock at least $2 billion off European airlines’ bottom line.

A top-down approach led by European Commission Vice President Siim Kallas is vital if the SES project is to be recovered from its lackluster performance to date. Even stiff penalties for failure to meet targets won’t get the project back on schedule to meet its original 2020 objectives, but they will ensure the project is implemented.

Think global, act local

SES isn’t just about Europe and European airlines, though. With NextGen in the United States having received the necessary funding and a Seamless Asian Sky gaining credence, SES implementation has to be aware of the global picture if it is to avoid creating an additional and larger-scale layer of fragmentation. 

“There are synchronization issues that must be addressed,” agrees Mistry. “The recently revised Master Plan and the evolving deployment governance for SESAR must ensure that we know who will deliver what, by when, and at what cost-to-benefit ratio.”

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