Every five years, a new European Commission and Parliament are elected. That five year rotation happened last year, meaning the new European leadership team for 2014-19 is preparing for action and that has important implications for Europe’s air transport industry.

“Europe is at a turning point when it comes to aviation policy and strategy. We have a new European Parliament, a new European Commission and a big review of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), with new leadership there and big changes to the work they’re doing,” European Regions Airline Association (ERA) DG Simon McNamara said.

However, according to McNamara, there is still no strategic blueprint for European aviation. “As an industry, I don’t believe we have a plan. The biggest plan we had was to liberalize the business back in the late 1990s, but since then we’ve been reactive.”

In mid-March the new Commission launched a 12-week public consultation on its Aviation Package that will lay down Europe’s 10- to 15-year strategy, give new powers to EASA and establish rules for drone use. The consultation ends June 10 and will be followed by an Economic and Social Committee hearing. The Commission will then draft the strategy over the summer and aims to adopt the package by the end of 2015.

“The strategy has to be simple,” EC aviation & international transport affairs director Margus Rahuoja said. “We will use innovation to achieve two priorities, to be safest and best-connected in the world. In a nutshell, these will be the core themes of the strategy. I think this is the only ambition we can and should have,” he said.

World connections

This will include defining what Europe wants from connectivity and negotiating further route rights to growth markets such as Southeast Asia. The plan will also look at connectivity bottlenecks, including airports and air traffic management. Concrete actions will be more clearly defined in November, once the package has been adopted.

“Our first priority is to be connected to world. The second priority is then to have a level playing field. This is a very difficult discussion,” Rahuoja said, in passing reference to the Gulf carrier competition debate.

However, International Air Carrier Association (IACA) DG Sylviane Lust believes the Gulf carrier debate shifts focus from the real issue. “The root competition problem is in Europe, in a lack of policies, inappropriate policies and poor implementation of policies. This [Gulf carrier] debate gives the impression that the problem is elsewhere.” She is concerned that the Aviation Package misses the real issue—cost competitiveness.

The Aviation Package will revise EASA’s basic regulation, extending the agency’s scope and potentially allowing EU states to delegate some of their responsibilities. But, beyond safety, a core EASA priority will be making sure its existing structures work.

“On paper we have designed a safe system, but in practice sometimes the system is not working as designed,” EASA head of air operations Claudio Trevisan said. “Flags of convenience create concerns that we cannot afford, that we cannot accept. It will kill all the efforts we are putting in place.”

Unlike FAA, which has one central entity with branch offices, Europe has powerful national authorities. “We have a duplicated layer. Our ambition is to move to a single safety regulator that has ultimate oversight,” ERA’s McNamara said.

The Aviation Package will trigger a discussion in the Parliament and Council about how the split of aviation oversight should evolve. “Now we need to set the scene for the next 10 years and how we get there. Where is the balance, the equilibrium? What should be done at national level and not at European level?” Rahuoja said.

He added that EU countries with a significant aviation sector are likely to want to retain their oversight powers, whereas others might welcome EASA support.

As well as seeking more responsibility, EASA is calling for performance-based rules, where it sets objectives and gives the industry flexibility to come up with solutions that work in day-to-day operations. These rules are more resilient to change and more adaptable.

“We have a challenge, within EASA, to change our mindset. We also need to promote change among all European regulators to ensure this new system can work effectively,” Rahuoja said.