Single European Sky: a changed culture but still a fragmented airspace

The Single European Sky (SES) initiative to improve air traffic management across the European Union has addressed a clear need and has led to a greater culture of efficiency, a report from the European Court of Auditors has shown, but the study says that European airspace management remains fragmented and the SES as a concept has not yet been fully realised.


Summary:

  • European Court of Auditors report says Single European Sky initiative has led to “a greater culture of efficiency,” but warns “European airspace management remains fragmented”.
  • The Single European Sky initiative, formally launched in 2004, aims to improve the overall performance of air traffic management.
  • The auditors note that reaching agreement on performance targets between the Commission and Member States has proved difficult, particularly in the areas of capacity and cost-efficiency.

Some 920 million passengers and 15 million tonnes of freight departed from or arrived at EU airports in 2015. In the same year, Europe’s skies were used by almost 10 million commercial flights. The safe and efficient flow of such traffic requires the intervention of air traffic management, which comprises three essential functions: ensuring separation between aircraft; balancing the provision of air traffic management with demand for flights; and providing aeronautical information to airspace users.

Although inherently international in nature, air traffic in Europe has traditionally been managed at national level in a fragmented and monopolistic environment. These features have contributed to delays and higher traffic-management costs borne by airspace users.

The SES initiative, formally launched in 2004, aims to improve the overall performance of air traffic management by moving a number of responsibilities from intergovernmental to European Union level. With European Union funding for the technological elements of SES so far reaching EUR730 million (this is due to grow to EUR3.8 billion by 2020) a regulatory framework comprising a set of EU-wide rules on air traffic safety, service provision, airspace management and interoperability within the network has now been established.

A visit by the auditors to government departments, air navigation service providers and national supervisors in five Member States (Spain, France, Hungary, Sweden and the United Kingdom), as well as key policy, operational and industrial stakeholders has found that the SES “was justified” because European air traffic management “was hindered by national monopolies and fragmentation”.

The report says the initiative is “coherent and targets those shortcomings,” but notes changes in traffic patterns mean that the high-level goals established at the outset “have become partly unachievable and partly irrelevant” over the course of its life. “The single market in Europe clearly does not yet enjoy the benefits of a single sky,” says George Pufan, the Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report

Navigation charges have not been substantially reduced and air traffic delays have started to increase again, say the auditors, while it says current functional airspace blocks essentially provide a forum for cooperation between neighbouring stakeholders, but have proved ineffective at targeting fragmentation in airspace management, service provision and procurement. Similarly, it explains, oversight by national supervisory authorities is hampered by the fact that they are not always fully independent and, in some cases, do not have the necessary resources.

The auditors note that reaching agreement on performance targets between the Commission and Member States has proved difficult, particularly in the areas of capacity and cost-efficiency. In addition, some indicators do not capture relevant aspects of performance.

It is clear the technological pillar of the SES – the SESAR project – has transformed a previously fragmented R&D environment into a coordinated one. However, the European Union’s role in the project has evolved since its inception in terms of scope, timeframe and financial magnitude, all of which have been significantly extended. Performance ambitions were re-set for 2035, not 2020 as originally envisaged.

READ the full special report ‘No 18/2017: Single European Sky: a changed culture but not a single sky’.