Flexibility is key to airspace reforms getting off the ground

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Series Details Vol.7, No.7, 22.2.01, p14
Publication Date 22/02/2001
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Date: 22/02/01

By Renée Cordes

WHEN air passengers are delayed, their first response is usually to blame the airline or airport. But about half the time, the real culprit is the lack of coordination in managing European airspace, which is divided along national boundaries.

Each country manages air traffic services in its own territory, making it difficult to unclog bottlenecks and cope with changing traffic patterns. The cost to industry is huge: an estimated € 5 billion per year for extra fuel, extra staff working time and loss of passenger time - not to mention environmental damage such as noise and air pollution.

With air traffic projected to grow 5% annually over the next 15 years, the problem is sure to get worse. Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio believes she has found the right formula for increasing capacity: a single European airspace jointly managed by civil and military authorities. The plan fits into a broader campaign aimed at bolstering passengers' rights.

She also supports the Community's accession into Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, in which the EU executive now only has observer status and cannot speak on behalf of member states. "By launching the single sky initiative, the European Commission intends to question the way air traffic management is organised in Europe," de Palacio told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. "It is clear that efficiency requires a more flexible use of the airspace between military and civil users, and even more transfer of sovereignty by the states."

There is still much work to be done, however, before policymakers can hope to get any real reforms off the ground. Next month, EU governments are expected to approve plans to set up a series of specialty committees charged with exploring areas of cooperation among individual countries such as research.

While this represents some progress, even Commission officials admit that a single sky is still a long way off. The biggest stumbling block by far is convincing member states to yield some of their power in an area traditionally considered the domain of individual countries. Ironically, the initiative is in large part a response to complaints from Union governments.

"In theory the whole idea of a single airspace is entirely possible," says Rodney Fewings, a member of the air transport group at Cranfield University in the UK. "But there are many difficulties in practice."

For example, as countries move towards privatising their air traffic services (as the UK) or running them like private corporations (as in Germany), creating a single sky becomes more of a problem.

As the clock ticks away, the air congestion problem gets worse. More than 26% of all intra-European flights during the third quarter of 2000 were delayed, according to the Association of European Airlines (AEA). At six airports, more than three-quarters of delays were attributed to airport and air traffic control causes.

While Europe's airlines are all for making airspace more efficient, they are not willing to wait much longer for policy makers to take action. In a recent letter to de Palacio, the AEA said that it was "high time" to tackle the problem and urged the adoption of a series of immediate measures. These would include Eurocontrol developing transition plans for one airspace and establishing an airspace policy commission.

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