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Single Sky - unblocking congestion in Europe's airspace

11 June 2013
by eub2 -- last modified 11 June 2013

The European Commission has acted to speed up the reform of Europe's air traffic control system. The Commission says it is looking to head off a capacity crunch as the number of flights is forecast to increase by 50% over the next 10-20 years. Inefficiencies in Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of close to EUR 5 billion each year to airlines and their customers. They add 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.


What is Europe's Single Sky?

The Single European Sky (SES) is a flagship European initiative to reform the architecture of European air traffic control, to meet future capacity and safety needs. Building on initiatives in the late 1990s, the Single Sky I (SES I) package was adopted in 2004, the Single Sky II Package (SES II) was adopted in 2009.

With full implementation of the SES:

  • Safety will be improved by a factor of ten;
  • Airspace capacity will be tripled;
  • The costs of air traffic management will be reduced by 50%;
  • The impact on the environment of each flight will be reduced by 10%.

How does it work?

The core idea of the SES is to shift the design of air traffic management from national level to the EU level to benefit from efficiencies of scale and overcoming the administrative and technical barriers created by the legacy of national approaches. This calls for intervention at the EU level.

So how does it work?

1. FABs: Under the different SES proposals, national air traffic control organisations work together in regional airspace blocks (Functional Airspace Blocks) to gain efficiency, cut costs and reduce emissions. See map below.

FABs - functional airspace blocks

2. Targets: There are binding key performance targets which must be met nationally or at FAB level for safety, capacity, cost efficiency and environmental performance. These performance targets drive the whole reform process, whilst other parts of the initiative enable their achievement. The air traffic control organisations have to co-operate and adapt to meet the targets and provide better services at lower costs. The local targets are set by Member States, based on EU-level targets agreed with the European Commission.

3. Network Manager: The Network Manager (Eurocontrol) supports the process by performing certain tasks that are most efficiently carried out centrally, such as route design or co-ordination of radio frequencies. It is also responsible for co-ordination of the air traffic flows between the national service providers.

4. New Technology: All of this depends on the successful deployment phase of the SESAR programme – the technological arm of the Single European Sky. The SESAR project aims to modernise the current equipment and procedures, which - due to the difficulty of technology changes when global interoperability has to be maintained - are in many cases decades old.

What is the problem?

Although all Member States remain committed to the SES, implementation still falls well below the original expectations.

This means that Europe is facing problems with:

Congestion: Europe is facing a capacity crunch as the number of flights is forecast to increase by 50% over the next 10-20 years. Today, some 9 million flights cross the European airspace.

Cost: Inefficiencies in Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of close to 5 billion Euros each year to airlines and their customers.

Pollution: The environmental impact of sub-optimal flight profiles remains significant. Air pollutants (NOx), have actually been increasing from 1990 to 2010 in the EU from 1,8% to 5,8% of the total EU27 emissions.

Delays and longer routes: They add 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.

Falling behind our Peers: The United States controls the same amount of airspace, with more traffic, at almost half the cost.

At a time when European airlines are facing tough competition globally, it is hard to ignore the untapped potential gains of the SES, amounting to €5 billion per year1. The faster the Single European Sky is implemented, the quicker the expected returns will materialise. We need to speed up the growth of the initial initiatives and nurture new ones where useful.

Why is the Single Sky not delivering as expected?

Since the Single Sky reform process started, the seeds of many improvements have also been planted. The steady growth of ATM (air traffic management) costs has been stopped - but the expected cost reductions have not yet been achieved. The first evidences are becoming visible that also the extra distance that aircraft are forced to fly because of ATM restrictions ("route extension) – thus increasing emissions and fuel costs – is starting to decrease slowly. Furthermore the Network Manager has been set up and has in a very short time managed to bring all concerned parties to the planning table for establishing what will eventually become a true European route network. The regulatory framework has seen the first improvements as the first SES and EASA rules have been implemented, even if this is taking place much later and with less completeness than expected.

But experience shows that Member States, which are either sole or majority owners of service providers, have a strong tendency to focus on steady revenue streams of the user-financed system of air traffic control services, and can be therefore reluctant to endorse fundamental change towards a more integrated operating airspace.

Currently, the existing SES decision-making processes allow too easily, progress to be blocked by national vested interests.

For this reason, the Single Sky 2+ initiative proposes a package of measures to tighten the "nuts and bolts" - the structures and decision-making processes - within the Single Sky reform to allow for more ambitious target setting- combined with more flexibility where it's really needed - and to deliver much tougher enforcement.

What is the Commission proposing?

The Commission is proposing to update the four regulations creating the Single European Sky (SES), and amend rules governing the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Key elements of the proposals, known as SES2+, include:

Better Safety and Oversight

Safety remains the first priority for aviation. The National Supervisory Authorities (NSAs) were created in 2004 to oversee the safety and performance of air traffic control organisation as well as to ensure that they implement the commonly agreed rules. Despite considerable initial progress, recent audits of Member States have shown that serious shortcomings still exist in the independence of these authorities. In many cases the air traffic control organisations exercise direct control over the authority that is intended to oversee them. SES2+ aims to help the situation in various ways.

First it requires a full institutional separation of the authorities from the entities that they oversee to ensure true management independence. Secondly it provides for a stable funding channel to ensure financial independence. Finally it also provides for co-operation, training and networking of authorities as well as exchanges of experts at EU-level to ensure that they have the necessary skills and means to do their work efficiently. This will have a very positive effect both on oversight and safety.

On performance targets

The reform of Europe's air traffic management system is driven by four key performance targets: safety, cost-efficiency, capacity and environment. These targets go to the heart of the reform process as they require air traffic control organisations to change and provide better services at lower cost.

In recent years, the delivery on performance targets has fallen significantly short of the overall level of ambition. This is because, under the current system, Member States have the ultimate say on targets and the adoption of corrective measures in case targets are not reached.

The Commission's proposal will strengthen the performance scheme by making the target setting more independent, transparent and more enforceable. It will strengthen the role of the Commission in setting ambitious targets. The target setting process will be shortened and made more evidenced based so that it can benefit from more up-to-date data and accurate traffic forecasts. At the same time, it will increase the independence of the Performance Review Body - as the key technical advisor - and enable sanctions to be applied when targets are not met.

Furthermore the national targets will be made more tailored so that they can – as necessary – be aimed at functional airspace blocks, national level, individual service provider or even individual airports. As the current systems sets a single uniform target on all providers, this tailoring allows States to take account of the fact that some service providers have already made improvements whereas others may lag further behind.

On support services

Support services are currently the biggest cost driver in air traffic management.

Currently air traffic control services are almost always provided by big monopoly service providers. This is natural for the core service providers (air traffic control and flight information services) as it is effectively impossible e.g. to have two competing towers at the same airport and thus they are natural monopolies whose efficiency has to rely on careful economic regulation – i.e. the performance scheme.

On the other hand support services (meteorological, communication, navigation, surveillance and aeronautical information services) are different and could be provided also under conditions of competition in the market. Furthermore studies have shown that the biggest potential for improvement – when comparing with performance in other parts of the world – is in the support services.

The Commission is proposing the separation of support services, which could then be subject to competitive tender, under normal public procurement rules ensuring transparency of the selection process and focus on quality and cost instead of nationality. The ownership and structure of the support service providers will be left open to choice. Conservative estimates indicate that 20% savings can be expected from the introduction of normal public procurement rules. Apart from improving efficiency this also opens the door for new entrants to the market and encourages investment and innovation in new products.

More customer focus

All too many air traffic control organisations consult their customers – the airspace users – as a mere formality, or indeed focus only on their own national airline. SES2+ seeks to introduce a stronger customer focus by introducing some industry best practises into the legislation as regards consultation as well as a possibility for the various airspace user groups to sign off investment plans of the providers.

This will ensure that the users – for whom the system exists – are properly heard and that they in turn can ensure a synchronised introduction of new equipment and other major investments both on the ground and in the aircraft.

More flexibility to allow Industrial Partnerships within FABs

Functional Airspace blocks (FABs) are intended to replace the current patchwork of 27 national air traffic blocks with a network of larger, regional blocks to gain efficiency, cut costs and reduce emissions.

Traditionally the Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) were a rather prescriptive form of co-operation between States and service providers, aiming for larger service provision entities. However one size does not fit all and often the FABs have become exercises in administrative box ticking rather than developing synergies.

With SES2+ the FABs will be turned into more flexible industry partnerships, which also allow participation in more than one FAB as long as they provide the necessary performance improvements. This will ensure that the real focus of FABs is performance and that they are used as bottom-up business tools instead of simply being political constructions.

Strengthening the network manager

The Network Manager (run by Eurocontrol) is already showing great promise, but it could be further strengthened based on experiences gained. It should be more a "service provider of service providers" focusing on network level synergies and industrial co-operation. Whilst at this point in time the scope of the Network Manager activities remains quite limited the proposals open the door to the introduction of a wider range of up to 10 new services such as information networks, monitoring of technical systems and airspace design. These could be provided by the Network Manager to local or regional air traffic control organisation bringing economies of scale. This will ensure that the new technologies and service are implemented or provided in an optimal manner and the patchwork of national ATMS systems can be integrated into a coherent network. The services could be either provided centrally or outsourced by the Network Manager.

EASA, Eurocontrol and the institutional landscape

Finally we need to ensure that the various EU-level organisations do not overlap, but complement each other's activities in an optimal manner and that the regulatory machinery is in shape for ensuring high quality rules during the next stages of developing SES and SESAR.

This is ensured by the three European level organisations focusing on their relative strengths. Some of these developments are not being addressed in the SES 2+ package, but for example in the discussions now under way on the reform of Eurocontrol's convention, but they are important nonetheless. Eurocontrol should increasingly focus on operational activities as described above concerning the Network Manager, utilising its considerable operational history and expertise. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on the other hand should focus on co-ordinating the drafting of technical rules and ensuring that they are properly consulted and of high and consistent quality. It should also continue to perform oversight duties and with SES2+ it would strengthen its support to the Member States authorities. Finally the Commission should focus on economic regulation (performance scheme, charging, FABs etc) and on the political strategy.

This will ensure that no resources are wasted and that the kind of implementation difficulties that we have encountered in the past can be avoided.

What happens next?

The Commission proposal will be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council starting July 2013.