Single European Sky for Faster and More Convenient Air Travel

22 August 2013, Last updated at, 10:07 EEST
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author: Reuters/Scanpix

As the number of flights in European Union (EU) airspace continues to increase, air traffic crises, delayed flights and higher travel costs are becoming more common. Once the air traffic control systems of all Member States have been harmonised, EU residents will enjoy faster and more convenient air travel.

Inefficiency costs time and money

Over the last decade Lithuania has seen a steady increase in the number of flights, starting from almost 79,000 flights in 2002 to almost 206,000 flights in 2012. The number of flights saw a marked fall due to the economic crisis only in 2009.

A similar trend is elsewhere in Europe, as the air traffic intensity, increasing since 1990 fell in 2009, yet it gradually regained its previous level by 2012. Current air traffic volume in Lithuania and Europe demonstrates a rather reserved improvement. According to estimates, the number of flights in Europe will increase up to 11 million, i.e. an increase of 16% compared to e.g. 2011.

In Europe in 2011, 18% of all flights were delayed over 15 minutes (a total of almost 18 million minutes of delays). Key reasons for delays include a lack of effective management of air traffic volume, rather than an increase in volume.

The costs of air navigation services account for over 50% of the total air traffic control-related costs. Unless the situation changes, the augmentation of costs will continue. Furthermore, once shortages of air navigation services are reduced and flight routes are optimised, the volume of emissions and the quantity of fuel used would fall as would the duration of flights.

Both Europe and the US have similar air spaces, and a similar number of air traffic divisions and airports; however the air space en-route in Europe is under the control of 38 service providers, while the US uses only one. 

Single European Sky. What is it?

Ways to change the current situation will be discussed by the EU Ministers of Transport at an informal meeting on 16 September in Vilnius, with the dedicated topic “Single European Sky. Introducing plans for the future: vision for 20XX”. Members of the informal meeting will discuss the implementation of the Single European Sky (SES). Lithuania, in terms of the Presidency of the EU Council, considers the matter to be an important tool to continue strengthening the Single European Market of air transport and more convenient and faster air travel. The Ministers are expected to discuss the further development of SES, and assess the need for a new approach on the implementation of the SES initiative, both in terms of regulatory and civil aviation industry aspects.

The proper SES initiative first emerged in the late 1990s, as the features of inefficient use of air space became evident; this was also facilitated by various air traffic crises over the years (e.g. terrorist attacks, spread of various diseases and eruption of volcanos). The fragmented European air traffic control system accounts for overloaded air space and considerable service costs. Therefore the SES concept was designed as a framework to deal with these issues. The first package of SES regulations (2004) chiefly concerned the establishment of air traffic control system capabilities and improved flight safety. Further reforms of air space control in Europe were based on the second package of SES regulations (2009). 

There is still a long way to go

The SES initiative has already brought some tangible results, as the safety of services provided by national air navigation service providers is now certified under a uniform system, and the prices of air navigation services have decreased. Air navigation service providers in EU Member States are also encouraged to cooperate and develop synergies with neighbouring countries, while Member States are urged to form functional blocks of air space.

However, the targets of the ambitious SES initiative have largely remained unaccomplished. European air space remains excessively fragmented, its control efficiency is below targets, and issues remain of excessive segmentation of air space and inadequate throughput.

With view to the above, in 2013 the European Commission drafted a new package of  SES regulations, including measures for the further development of the SES initiative and improved efficiency of the European air traffic control system, assuring adequate capabilities for the estimated increase in air traffic. New draft regulations seek to provide opportunities to speed up implementation of most of the previous measures, continue the establishment and integration of functional blocks of air space, and encourage the modernisation of the European air traffic management system.

In this context, EU Ministers of Transport will discuss two key aspects of this issue. They will first discuss the opportunity and need for a clear distribution of functions between the national and EU authorities responsible, to avoid overlapping functions. Hence the European Commission would be entrusted with key issues of economic regulation, while the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) would establish technical requirements focused on effective operation. Given that the majority of air navigation service providers in  European Union Member States still represent companies acting in the environment of a natural monopoly, the European Commission proposes increased attention to the economic regulation of this industry by the setting of ambitious yet realistic performance indicators.

The second aspect of the discussions at the meeting of Ministers is encouragement for the aviation industry to take part in the modernisation and improvement of service level. Experience shows that the modernisation of air traffic control requires steps balanced both on the regulatory level and that of the aviation industry.

Issues to be discussed at the meeting of the Ministers of Transport are also relevant to Lithuania, as the country is part of the same processes and is involved in the establishment of a functional block of Baltic air space.

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