According to the European Parliament, the Single European Sky (SES) primarily aims at improving the performance of Air Transport Management (ATM) and the Air Navigation Services (ANS) by leveraging a better integration of the European airspace. But how far are we from the implementation of the SES?

Delays in achieving the SES

Taking as a reference the year 2004, the implementation of the SES, which is expected to be concluded around 2030-2035, will triple the European airspace capacity, halve the costs of ATM and improve safety by ten times, besides reducing the environmental impact by at least 10-15%.

However, according to Europe’s airlines and the EU Commission, national governments are doing little to progress on the SES air traffic reforms. Nonetheless, all the advantages the SES would bring about would have a significant knock-on effect on the quality of ATMs in Europe and on the duration of flights, which is a variable influencing demand. Consequently, a boost in demand for air travel translates into more revenues for airlines and airports.

According to easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren, those countries imposing environmental taxes on flights prevent the SES from being accomplished. Moreover, Lundgren highlights how the success of a flight is, in most cases, linked not to variables related to the aircraft performance or airline management but to external factors, such as air traffic control (ATC).

The issue of ATC

The main issue related to air traffic controllers is that not only are they highly unionized, but they also have the power to bring air traffic to a standstill. According to Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, approximately 3,000 French air traffic controllers can shut down air travel in the heart of Western Europe.

According to O’Leary, even if the SES will eventually be implemented, ATCs should not be allowed to disrupt overflights. Indeed, during French air traffic controllers’ strikes, French domestic flights are protected by the French legislation, whereas multiple cancellations and delays critically hit overflights. According to Ryanair’s statistics, 90% of delayed Ryanair flights over the past 12 months were linked to air traffic control issues.

Unions are an obsacle to SES

According to Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr, unions also play a significant role in delaying the implementation of the SES. More precisely, unions seem to be against implementing new technology and systems that would smooth operations. The underlying reason for such resistance against technology is the feeling that implementing new IT solutions would make many employees more replaceable.

Moreover, the Ukraine war will also have an impact on delaying the achievement of the SES. Indeed, many countries will most likely feel the need to protect their own airspace instead of opening it to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, national governments are also thought to be against the loss of sovereignty if air traffic management were coordinated on a European, not national, basis.

Nonetheless, Spohr believes that the benefits the SES would bring about in terms of sustainability are so relevant that they could boost the implementation of the Single European Sky. Indeed, the main problem right now is that airlines are prevented from flying the fastest routes to their destinations because they are directed on differing routes through national airspace. Consequently, it now takes longer for airlines to cross the continent than it used to be 30 years ago, with a dramatic impact on CO2 emissions.

Lufthansa A320neo taxiing. @ Marco Macca / Travel Radar
Lufthansa A320neo taxiing. @ Marco Macca / Travel Radar

Hope springs eternal

Given the major role that the implementation of the SES would play in lowering CO2 emissions, airlines are confident that national governments will try and progress on the establishment of the Single European Sky in the years to come.

Both airlines and the EU commission have high hopes for the Cezch EU presidency, which will begin in July. However, after 20 years of trying, the path still seems to be long.

 

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