The Single European Sky remains mired in bureaucracy but individual countries can move modernization forward

The European economy could be boosted by €245 billion ($288bn) by 2035. All it would take is an airspace modernization program that would deliver the capacity needed to avoid the inefficiencies and delays that dog the existing system.

The Single European Sky (SES) was launched many years ago to tackle the problem.

Targets include a threefold increase in capacity, a tenfold increase in safety, a 50% reduction in ATM costs, and a 10% reduction in environmental impact—all compared with a 2004/2005 baseline.

Critics maintain that, given the lack of progress so far, SES will never reach those targets. In the 2012–2014 period, for example, European air navigation service providers (ANSPs) missed flight efficiency targets by a whopping 45%.

Last year, more than 1.3 million minutes of delays due to strikes and system failures were clocked up

And though there are examples of technological improvements bringing greater interoperability across borders, the functional airspace blocks (FABs)—the cornerstones of SES—have not progressed as planned and regulatory oversight remains weak.

“The present situation in Europe is not acceptable,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

“Last year, more than 1.3 million minutes of delays due to strikes and system failures were clocked up. And that does damage well beyond the airline industry.”

Ultimately, says de Juniac, the blame lies with the fragmentation of European airspace and the lack of strategic planning. “We need to raise awareness of the economic destruction caused by this outdated system and exacerbated by strikes. And if we take a positive view, there is a huge economic prize if Europe’s ATM challenges are fixed.”

Fundamentally different

European airspace modernization cannot be ignored. There will be an extra 500 million air passengers in Europe by 2035, compounding existing issues.

The industry’s efforts so far have not generated sufficient progress for significant benefits to be realized.

A Europe-wide solution is needed. But states are focused on national interests ahead of what would be most advantageous for the continent. 

This is about having an airspace strategy that is coherent on the national and regional level

Without giving up on the big win of an €245 billion economic boost by 2035, IATA is adopting a new tactic—get the most consequential individual states to develop their air navigation services in partnership with airlines who fund the system, and in line with what is needed for SES.

The solution is a National Airspace Strategy (NAS). State-specific strategies would be based on smarter regulation principles. This includes genuine consultation with airspace users; a multi-stakeholder governance structure; a roadmap with agreed milestones; and supporting cost/benefit analyses.

Each NAS should integrate with the wider European airspace network to maximize efficiency, deliver SES goals, and align with environmental requirements.

Reliability will be a core requirement of a NAS. Business continuity must be put in place to ensure service quality, resilience must be built into processes, recovery plans are vital, and contingency capability must be established nationally and/or with FAB partners.

“This is not just about investment,” says Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe.

“This is about having an airspace strategy that is coherent on the national and regional level. A NAS will drive efficiencies and ultimately help Europe implement a Single European Sky. We are working very hard on collaborating with ANSPs and we are getting a positive response.”

Avoiding delays

IATA has been in close contact with the ANSPs in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain. In all these nations, the ANSP is interested in developing a national airspace strategy with IATA and other stakeholders.

In Poland, for example, PANSA (the Polish Air Navigation Service Provider) needs to modernize its airspace to cope with a predicted doubling of aviation demand in the next two decades. 

Successful airspace and ATM modernization would create significant benefits, including an extra €6 billion ($7bn) in annual GDP and 65,000 Polish jobs by 2035, according to SEO Amsterdam Economics.

"The modernization of Polish airspace is an essential part of our country’s development plans and the creation of a national strategy that brings together all the organizations tasked with contributing to this important initiative is considered a top priority,” says Janusz Niedziela, CEO of PANSA.

The Polish NAS will cover the strategic direction for the future of ATM in Poland

The Polish NAS will cover the strategic direction for the future of ATM in Poland, including enhanced airspace capacity and more efficient routes that reduce fuel burn and improve environmental performance.

Network resilience and business continuity and enhanced cooperation with European partners to accelerate the achievement of SES goals will also feature.

Planning for the development of the Polish NAS is underway. A collaborative working group involving representatives from PANSA and IATA is exploring such core requirements covering as safety, environmental performance, connectivity and cost efficiency.

A broader group of aviation and non-aviation stakeholders will be engaged early in the strategy development process, and, ultimately, the organizations will seek government endorsement of the NAS.

Delivering reform

Air connectivity is a proven boon to global well-being and prosperity. But Europe will not participate fully in the potential benefits unless aviation stakeholders work together for airspace reform.

The aim must be to deliver ATM reforms that will generate more choice for passengers, greater traffic volumes to benefit airlines and ANSPs, and an economic bonanza for Europe.

“The airline community expects an airspace strategy to put service dependability and reliability at its very heart,” de Juniac concludes.

“I want to stress that taking this bottom-up approach is not about weakening the aims of the SES. We are as keen as ever that the goals of this project are met, and will continue to offer the European Commission every support.

"But we believe working bottom up as an industry will be complementary and bring real benefits to European ATM performance.”