EU governments ‘to blame’ for blocking airspace reform

Key EU member states have 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 on March 6 which have been dismissed by airlines as inadequate.

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

Rachel Smit, member of the cabinet of European transport commissioner Adina Valean, responded to criticism of the lack of progress by telling the Airlines for Europe (A4E) Summit in Brussels: “We had a high level of ambition on a single sky, but member states do not have the same sense of urgency.”

She said: “We were faced with a group of very vocal member states. We achieved baby steps. This can’t be the end, but maybe things need to get worse before we get change.”

Irish transport, environment, climate and communications minister Jack Chambers noted a single European sky “has been on the agenda for 20 years” and described the recent agreement as a “box-ticking conclusion” and “a complete failure of European politics”.

Chambers said: “It shows there is still protectionism in Europe’s aviation market. It’s demoralising when the easiest measures we could take on sustainability are avoided.”

He insisted: “We’re going round in circles. There is a block of states blocking this [and] the next European Commission will have to bring a new focus to this.”

However, Georges Gilkinet, Belgian deputy vice-minister and federal mobility minister, hailed the agreement as “a crucial milestone in efforts to modernise European airspace”.

He said: “We acknowledge not everyone in the sector is satisfied, especially A4E members who consider it not ambitious enough. But I’m convinced it’s a good deal and a big step on the way to greater efficiency and sustainability.”

Gilkinet argued: “The decarbonisation of transport is paramount in our fight against climate change.” He noted Belgium had introduced lower airport charges for “more sustainable aircraft” and said: “We want to encourage this practice across the EU.”

He added: “We must discourage short flights by investing in high speed and night trains and inter-modal travel.”

Gilkinet also told the airline chiefs: “I know some of you won’t agree with me, but we need to do more to ensure higher standards across Europe for crew. We must maintain rigorous standards for all working in aviation.”

The 25-year path to no Single European Sky

The EC first launched a Single European Sky (SES) initiative to reform Europe’s airspace in 1999.

The SES2 framework was introduced in 2009 and an update (SES2+) was proposed in 2013 but made little progress. The EC presented a fresh update to its 2013 proposal in September 2020, which led to a provisional agreement between the European Parliament and European Council on March 6 this year.

This would allow the variation of air traffic charges to incentivise improved environmental performance and use of the more fuel-efficient routings.

It also agreed the formation of Performance Review Board to advise the EC on implementation of performance and charging schemes for airspace management bodies.

But the review board will have no regulatory powers and there will be no EU-wide targets due to opposition from EU member states including France and Italy.

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