There was unprecedented pessimism at the European Aviation Summit in Amsterdam on whether any real progress would be achieved on implementing the Single European Sky (SES) any time soon.  

And as is the tendency of all industries in the absence of political action, aviation is finding its own solutions to the problems.

European Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc described the summit, in January, as an “eye opener at every level.” She said, “One thing is clear: nobody loves the [recently released EU Aviation] Strategy. That is good news because I really hope that means everybody will stay alert and engaged. It’s clear that everybody is ready to change, but I ask you please don’t use the Commission as a lightning rod for the frustrations that will be part of this change,” Bulc said.

She argued that the Commission was doing all it could, but needed more input from states and stakeholders.  

Sounding exasperated, Bulc reminded the audience that the EC had thought it was delivering what was being asked by airlines. 

“You called for action; we delivered the Aviation Strategy,” Bulc said. “You asked for a level playing field; we have put the mandates on the table. Now let me see how bold you are and how much mandate you are prepared to give us. You wanted better competitiveness in the internal market; SES 2+ has been on the table for three years. I don’t know what to say. You wanted better regulation; we revised the entire EU safety framework. It’s on the table waiting for you to make decisions. I could go on,” she said. 

ATC union hold

Industry observers are largely in agreement that labor issues are responsible for hampering progress on SES. There is general recognition that the technical solutions are already available. The labor issues, however, have yet to be resolved and the airlines are pointing the finger at air traffic control unions and accusing them of holding SES to ransom.  

“They are the only stakeholders that do not support SES,” said one airline representative, who also proposed a plan similar to that put forward by easyJet in its
Vision for European Aviation February 2015. 

That proposal stated that if controllers feel SES threatens their jobs, a cost-effective solution might be to make the air traffic controller’s role a job for life. 

At the summit, the industry source said the financial and environmental benefits of being able to move forward on SES would far outweigh the cost of guaranteeing no compulsory redundancies among air traffic controllers. And it would also ensure a solid foundation of experienced controller resources to see through the transition to a Single Europe Sky. 

The source also pointed out that as a matter of practicality, some governments were simply unable to press ahead with SES legislation while there was such a vocal body of resistance on the social front.

The newly launched Airlines for Europe (A4E) association has made the delivery of reliable and efficient airspace one of the four campaigning issues on which all five founding member airlines are agreed. The founding member airlines are Air France KLM, Lufthansa Group, International Airlines Group and low-cost carriers easyJet and Ryanair.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary (see Interview, page 34) outlined the association’s position saying, “As a first step, we are calling for action to eliminate ATC strikes which disrupt millions of consumers across Europe each year, needlessly and unnecessarily because the tendency of air traffic control unions is to strike first and talk second.

“We believe there are other mechanisms such as binding arbitration that should be entered into first. It is also unacceptable that an ATC strike in one country can affect thousands of flights that neither depart from, nor land in, that country, but simply overfly it,” he said.

O’Leary said the technology already existed to enable the air navigation service providers (ANSPs) of neighboring countries to take over operation of overflights during an ATC strike.

A4E said it welcomed proposals in the Aviation Strategy to help alleviate the impact of strikes and said it would seek an urgent meeting with ANSPs to develop an action plan to ensure that overflights can operate without disruption during ATC strikes.

Immediate action

“We need an urgent program to deliver a more efficient ATC system across Europe and implement the SES, which thus far has been a lamentable failure. Instead of waiting for Brussels to get an agreement from all stakeholders, there are actions we can take immediately,” O’Leary said. 

“Rather than waiting another 20 years for SES, let’s have real action that forces the air traffic control unions into binding arbitration as the first step and strike action as a last resort. We have come up with specific proposals—binding arbitration and allowing overflights—that at a stroke significantly weaken the ability of those who would disrupt the lives of millions of consumers every year,” he said. “It would also save millions of tons of fuel being wasted by aircraft having to reroute around strike-affected airspace. Nothing will transform the lives of Europe’s consumers more than tackling these air traffic control issues, which are costing our passengers billions of euros every year,” O’Leary said.

Bulc summarized the outcome of the summit: “We are all agreed we need connectivity; it is crucial. We need Open Skies, so let’s hope the member states will pick up on this. We need sensible investment, friendly regulation, and innovation and digitalization as well as disruptive technologies,” she said. 

But then she pointed to the reality.

“Areas where we still need to find new common background are the speed with which we should walk the walk; the extent of the regulation that we agree is helpful—here we are still not on the same page. Also, [we need agreement on the] distribution of wealth and the role of national airlines,” Bulc said.