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EU Parliament on Collision Course with Member States over Airspace Reform

June 21, 2021

Reporting for Sean Goulding Carroll writes that the European Parliament’s recently agreed position on reforming Europe’s airspace backs a number of items rejected by EU countries, setting up a showdown between MEPs and member states over the Single European Sky initiative 2+ (SES).

The long-sought for measures aim to “improve the overall efficiency of the way in which European airspace is organised and managed through a reform of the industry providing air navigation services,” according to the European Commission proposal.

The EU executive says the reforms will cut emissions, reduce delays, and boost capacity over the continent’s skies. It is estimated that the implementation of the SES will save up to 10% of commercial aviation emissions through increased flight efficiency.

Currently, inter-EU flights pass through a range of air navigation jurisdictions – known as Functional Airspace Blocs (FABs) – that often result in indirect routes and longer travel time.

Under the Commission proposal, air navigation would be more centrally steered. An independent “Performance Review Body” would be housed under the EU Safety Aviation Agency (EASA), which would be mandated to assess the efficiency of airspace management in member countries. MEPs also want to see charges for air navigations services levied against airlines scaled by emissions, encouraging investment in clean flight technology.

With the Scandinavian countries at the northern edge of the continent, SAS (above) and Finnair (below) have greater distances and more countries to overfly to reach destinations in Southern Europe

Kevan James

But the EU’s 27 transport ministers rejected several of the provisions in the European Commission’s text, arguing that the matters are best dealt with at the national level. The agreement was struck during a meeting of the Transport Council on 3 June. MEPs are more supportive of the reform, criticising the Council’s “reluctance” to make progress on the file.

“The current airspace architecture is built according to national borders. This causes longer flights, more delays, higher emissions and extra costs for passengers, meaning nationalism is causing more pollution,” said MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, Parliament’s negotiator of the reform of the SES. “With a truly Single European Sky and unified European air management, we would create a new airspace architecture based on efficiency and not on borders,” he added.

Centrally located airports like Frankfurt can provide an advantage to airlines based at them when it comes to flying time

The International Aviation Transport Association (IATA), a body representing international airlines, praised the Parliament’s approach. “MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, the rapporteur of the SES2+ proposal, has shown leadership and a true European mindset rather than the ‘business as usual’ and nationalistic approach the Council took in early June,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe. IATA has been critical of what they say were member states’ attempts to “water down any serious reform”.

Shadow rapporteur for the left-wing S&D group, MEP Bogusław Liberadzki, said the SES should be “implemented quickly” as there was a need to bring “common European standards and procedures between member states”.

“After the COVID crisis, we are ready to boost economic and environmental efficiency in European aviation,” he said in a statement.

Previous attempts to pass air traffic management reforms had been hindered by the long-running diplomatic dispute over the territorial status of Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory located in the south of Spain. Spanish officials argued the land on which Gibraltar’s airport was constructed was never ceded to the UK, which the British government rejected. The UK’s departure from the bloc removed a major barrier to an agreement, raising hopes within the Commission that the SES proposals will be adopted. However, the gap between the legislative bodies on the file is likely to dampen expectations.

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