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Single European Sky

04 December 2012
by eub2 -- last modified 04 December 2012

Many EU Member States are seriously lagging behind and not yet fully compliant with requirements to make nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) fully operational, for the deadline of 4 December 2012. A critical deadline has been missed for FABs, the regional airspace blocks which are a key element for the ambitious plans to create a single European airspace – tripling European airspace capacity and halving air traffic control costs. The European Commission warned today that it will launch infringement procedures against Member States for all the Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) which are not yet fully compliant with all legal requirements. It will also present a new package of legislative measures in Spring 2013 to accelerate reforms and ensure the full delivery of a Single European Sky. The EC says inefficiencies caused by Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of close to €5 billion each year. It adds 42 kilometres to the distance of an average flight, forcing aircraft to burn more fuel, generate more emissions, pay more in costly user-charges and suffer greater delays. The United States controls the same amount of airspace, with more traffic, at almost half the cost, it adds.


What is the problem?

The liberalisation of the EU's aviation market in 1993 made travel much more accessible and affordable and has stimulated growth in air services. Since then, traffic has increased by 54%.

The constraints on airspace capacity in Europe have resulted in more delays. Delay is not only due to a shortage of capacity; it is also caused by the fact that air traffic control in Europe is fragmented and inefficient. Airspace is currently structured around national boundaries and so flights are often unable to take direct routes – which would save fuel, reduce costs and be better for the environment.

To make a comparison, in an airspace which is roughly the same size, Europe has more than 30 en-route air navigation service providers and the USA has just one; the USA serves twice as many flights as Europe with the same costs.

What is SES?

The Single European Sky (SES) is an ambitious initiative to remove boundaries in the air as they were removed on the ground for the single market. The SES goal is to reform the architecture of European air traffic control to meet future capacity and safety needs, in particular by improving the overall performance of Air Traffic Management (ATM) and Air Navigation Service (ANS) in Europe, with the aim to:

  • Triple airspace capacity. This will reduce delays.
  • Improve the safety performance by a factor of 10 so that the total number of ATM related safety incidents will not increase despite traffic growth.
  • Reduce environmental impact by 10%.
  • Reduce the cost of ATM service to the airspace users by 50%.

SES consists of two major packages of legislation (SES-I and SES-II) as well as numerous supplementary implementing rules.


SES I was about the capacity of the airspace. One of the main achievements of SES I, launched in 2004, is the separation of regulation from service provision through the creation of National Supervisory Authorities (NSAs) and the certification and designation of air navigation service providers (ANSPs). This separation provides greater transparency.

Despite some success, the first package did not create the level of change required to improve substantially the performance of ATM in Europe.

SES-II – Current situation and achievements

In response the Commission proposed a second package of legislation, SES-II, launched in 2009. SES II was about Improving Performance. It consists of four pillars:

  • Regulating performance: essentially, this pillar covered the establishment of an independent Performance Review Body (PRB) to oversee the performance of the system and set targets. It made functional airspace blocks (FABs) mandatory by December 2012 at the latest. It foresaw the designation of a European network manager.
  • Safety: safety regulation needed to be harmonised and uniformly applied, and so the competence of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was extended to cover aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services. The industry has long supported the extension of EASA to be the sole safety regulator at European level for air transport. With the latest extension of EASA competence this is now becoming a reality.
  • Technology: SESAR is the technological arm of the SES. The aim of SESAR is to provide the technical solutions to enable the SES objectives to be achieved. The current phase is managed by the SESAR Joint Undertaking – a Public Private Partnership (PPP) comprising the EC and EUROCONTROL as founding members and additional members representing airport operators, ground and airborne industry and ANSPs. Airspace users, the military and professional staff bodies are involved through separate contracts. From 2014 onwards the deployment phase is concerned with the actual implementation of the SESAR solutions.
  • Airport capacity: the European Commission is keen to see airports' capacity potential maximised, and thus has established an Airport Observatory for the exchange and monitoring of information on airport capacity.

The package is now recognised as including a fifth pillar on human factors, recognising that ATM is and will remain a human-centric activity.

What are the functional airspace blocks (FABs)?

A FAB is a part of the sky where national borders and thus also less efficient national arrangements have been removed. It can be thought of as a single airspace, just as the single market in the EU allows EU citizens to travel, live and work freely anywhere in the EU. By enabling aircraft to fly without dealing with border crossings, FABs would enhance safety. By enabling aircraft to fly straighter lines at better altitudes, FABs would save fuel and reduce delays. By unifying Europe's sky and consolidating its services, FABs would reduce the environmental impact of aviation and reduce the cost of flying to the tune of billions of euros annually.

The deadline for the creation of FABs was established at 04 December 2012. FABs are the main institutional vehicle for achieving the performance targets established by the performance scheme. Progress in delivering real operational improvements has been insufficient; whilst institutional arrangements were expected to be in place by the deadline.

Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs)

What has been achieved to date?

The Single European Sky is a top aviation priority, too important to be allowed to fail. However, right now the implementation of the whole project is falling seriously behind the original ambition. After more than 10 years, the core problems remain: too little capacity, generating the potential for a negative impact on safety, at too high a price.

A lot has been achieved though: service providers have been separated from those that regulate them; regulators have achieved functional separation from the state through the establishment of national supervisory authorities; interoperability of technical systems has dramatically improved; service providers have reached prescribed standards in their business and safety management systems to allow for their certification and designation; airspace classifications at higher levels have been harmonised; and the principle of the flexible use of airspace is in place – airspace is a single continuum, it is neither civil nor military and must be operated to satisfy the needs of all users at the time they need it.

2012 is a critical year for the Single European Sky, with four key deliverables, some of which are on track. However based on progress to date, the SES process as it stands is not yet delivering an optimum operating environment:

1.The performance scheme, setting key air traffic management (ATM) targets in improving capacity and reducing costs – modestly for the first reference period (2012-14), but demonstrating a paradigm shift by the providers in the principle of transparency of their service delivery. Further work is needed though to incentivise greater efficiency and assure adherence to agreed targets.

2. The nine functional airspace blocks covering the whole EU plus 4 more States (Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Norway, Switzerland) have been created, which represents a significant milestone. On the other hand, these FABs are not yet genuinely "functional" as they still follow national borders or have not yet optimised their air navigation services, or both. The main cause of this shortcoming has been a protracted focus on finalising institutional issues rather than on identifying and actioning operational improvements and undue protection of national interests.

3. The ATM network manager, already designated in 2011 as Eurocontrol, has established agreed rules of procedure, processes for collaborative decision making, the composition and activity list for a European crisis coordination cell (in response to volcanic induced activity in 2010). They have also generated a network operations portal (access for users to determine the current, live status of the network), a network strategy plan to determine longer term actions to improve the network, and a network performance plan to demonstrate the areas in which the network manager will add positive value to network performance. The network manager is expected to coordinate the allocation of scarce resources, such as radio frequencies, transponder codes and airspace design, and to perform the air traffic flow management function for Europe.

4. The governance and funding/financing for the deployment phase of SESAR, the technological arm of the Single European Sky (from 2014), to allow transition from the R&D phase to the rollout of new equipment and technology. A substantial consultation to determine stakeholder's views has been completed and the Commission is currently drafting an implementing rule that will lay down responsibilities, decision making levels, implementation ownership and identify the deployment manager.

What is the Commission proposing?

The European Commission announced that, in order to ensure the necessary progress, it will use its existing enforcement powers to the maximum extent, if necessary including infringements.

Source: European Commission