Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has called the Single European Sky a “waste of time”. “The Single European Sky has gone over for 20 years” since its introduction in 2004, and “it will go over the next 20 years. I don’t have any time for the Single European Sky,” said Ryanair’s Group CEO, adding that he “couldn’t care less" about the legislation. But several airline leaders do care, and it was once again discussed at this year’s IATA AGM held in Dubai.

In Europe, key EU member states earlier blocked the reform of European airspace despite demands to cut flight delays and significantly reduce flight emissions by reducing congestion in the air.

The European Council and European Parliament reached provisional agreement on new airspace management arrangements which have been dismissed by the airlines as inadequate, not ambitious enough.

Most airline leaders want progress ‘with substance’ by creating a ‘Single European Sky’ to replace the current patchwork of airspace management bodies criss-crossed by air corridors.

The hope was, and still is, that the single European sky initiative will one-day increase the efficiency of air traffic management and air navigation services by reducing the immense fragmentation of European airspace. By its nature, this ongoing initiative is pan-European and open to neighbouring countries. But the question is...when?

Under the Single European Skies initiative, European airspace management would move away from the current, datedarrangement: A fragmented airspace map determined by national borders, to the use of 'functional airspace blocks' the boundaries of which will be designed to maximise the efficiency of the airspace for air travel across Europe as a whole.

The aim is clear: To use air traffic management that is more closely based on desired flight patterns leading to greater safety (by preventing congestion in the skies), efficiency (both environmentally and economically) and greater capacity.

The Single European Skies initiative will reduce airlines' annual fuel costs by €5.5bn, meaning Europe could better handle large scale disruptions (such as the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption), overcrowding in the skies (as was happening in summer 2019), as well as unprecedented collapses in air travel demand (such as the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic).

But the European Commission has been trying to deliver a single European sky since the early 2000s. Country inaction has meant that none of its targets have been met. New legislation, as proposed by the Commission, is the only way to force the reform and improvements that are desperately needed. IATA points to the intransigence and selfishness of key EU states and their air navigation service providers, adding that their delays threaten to collapse the latest Commission effort. Some EU member states have expressed certain objections to relinquishing their current systems, primarily relating to national security and sovereignty concerns.

“The European Commission has been trying to deliver the benefits of SES since the early 2000s,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General. “But state inaction has meant that none of its targets have been met. New legislation, as proposed by the Commission, is the only way to force the reform and improvements that are desperately needed. But the intransigence and selfishness of key EU states and their air navigation service providers (ANSPs) threatens to collapse the latest Commission effort.”

With Europe’s air traffic management system being so dated and fragmented, a single European sky initiative is vital for a safe, sustainable, and efficient European air transport industry. It would lead to a 10% cut in EU aviation emissions, supporting the European Green Deal. Capacity can be increased, and delays will occur less (especially in summer) giving a €245bn boost to Europe’s GDP and a million extra jobs annually from 2035.

Airbus say that pressure is also rising with new types of aircraft entering the airspace, but old, fragmented airspace plans are not enabling these jets to operate flights as efficiently as could be possible.

The aviation industry is firmly behind efforts to achieve a fully integrated airspace, not only for the benefit of airlines, but also for the sake of passengers and the environment. It’s the politics of implementation that’s not aligned. Currently, travellers are enduring unnecessary delays and aircraft are producing more CO2 emissions than they would under a modern, streamlined system.

A study revealed airspace modernisation could deliver European consumers an additional $36bn (€32bn) of welfare benefits in the year 2035, compared to a ‘do nothing’ scenario (in which no further airspace modernisation takes place).

Commercial aviation continues to be responsible for about 2-3% of global carbon emissions. To date, the industry has made most progress on efficiency gains on new aircraft.

Today around 85% are more efficient than those entering service in the 1960s. Alternative fuels, particularly sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), have been proven to help achieve the industry climate targets. SAF derived sources such as algae, jatropha, or waste by-products have been shown to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80% over their full lifecycle. Nearly a quarter of the operating costs of airlines spent on fuel: 23.7% in 2019, which is up from 13% in 2001. The proportion is likely to rise further as fuel prices go up. This alone is a major incentive for the whole industry to focus on fuel efficiency.

Countries have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, through an international approach, working with governments around the world and through the UN’s aviation agency, ICAO.
The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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