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Brussels, May 3 2010

Extraordinary Transport Council: Transport Ministers meet to agree response to volcanic ash cloud crisis

European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for transport, will present on Tuesday 4 May, to an extraordinary transport ministers meeting in Brussels, a range of possible short-term actions and structural measures to respond to the repercussions of the volcanic ash crisis. The proposed measures aim in the first place to help passengers and the air transport industry overcome this difficult period – an unprecedented crisis which resulted in the cancellation of over 100,000 flights and left more than 10 million passengers unable to fly. Secondly, the package proposes structural changes to ensure people do not face this situation again. These include proposals for: co-ordinated European action to review safety assessment for volcanic activity at EU level and to revise the ICAO guidelines (International Civil Aviation Organisation) by September 2010; fast tracking critical elements of the Single European Sky II package; and proposals to put in place pan-European mobility planning – so different transport modes can substitute for each other in a crisis situation. The package of measures was proposed in association with Vice-President Almunia (competition and state aid) and Commissioner Rehn (economic and monetary affairs) and endorsed by the College of Commissioners on 27 April 2010.

European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, in charge of transport, said: "The question is not if but when this kind of crisis will happen again. It could be next month; it could be in 50 years' time. But volcano eruptions and other crisis events do not respect any rules, so we need to be more flexible and agile in our response. First, we need co-ordinated European action to help millions of passengers and an industry which has been hard hit by this unprecedented crisis. Then we need to do everything possible so people never have to re-live this kind of situation again. For that, we need to break new ground. Full implementation of the Single European Sky and a review of safety assessment for volcanic activity are critical to manage such crises in the future. The other major priority is to better coordinate and improve pan-European mobility to ensure that transport modes can inter-connect and act as a safety valve for each other in a crisis situation."

Measures proposed by the European Commission

Vice-President Siim Kallas will present the Commission's proposals to transport ministers in terms of three pillars:

1. Crisis management

Co-ordinated European action is urgently needed to revise the existing international procedures in case of volcanic activity. The Commission can lead this process forwards, establishing an expert group, and developing a new methodology for risk management. Moreover, on the basis of exchanges with other world regions, the Commission could co-ordinate an EU proposal to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) General Assembly in September 2010.

Accelerating the implementation of the Single European Sky

The need for full EU co-ordination in the event of airspace management crisis means giving the highest priority to an accelerated implementation of the Single European Sky II package (SES II), due to come into force in 2012 at the latest. The Single European Sky package aims at redesigning the European sky according to traffic flows rather than national borders. In particular the Single Sky package would put in place a single European system for air traffic. The Commission is proposing to fast track many essential elements of the Single European Sky package already by the end of 2010. In particular, the appointment of a European network manager before the end of 2010 is crucial. If the network management function had been designated prior to the crisis, the situation would have been quite different.

2. Europe-wide co-ordination of support measures for passengers and industry

Co-ordinated enforcement of air passenger rights. Air passenger rights provided by EU law remain fully applicable. Citizens across Europe must be able to access their rights everywhere. And there must be a level playing field so that one company does not get unfair advantage over another by failing to fully meet its obligations. The Commission is ready to facilitate work with national authorities to ensure a co-ordinated approach and that regulations are applied in a consistent way.

Co-ordinated application of rules on state aid. The Commission considers that Member States can rapidly implement measures in favour of the air industry which do not constitute state aid – notably loans and guarantees granted at market conditions. Certain support measures could also be envisaged as state aid from Member States to make good damage caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences. If support from Member States takes the form of state aid measures it must be granted on the basis of uniform criteria established at European level. It cannot be used to allow unfair assistance to companies which is not directly related to the crisis. The Commission could produce a Communication to establish clear and precise guidance in this regard.

The closure of airspace in the EU justifies the adoption of measures to introduce, on a temporary basis, flexibility in the application of current rules and policies to ease the pressure on airlines and help with immediate cash flow problems, for example:

  • The Commission will recommend that slot coordinators take into account the effects of the crisis, so that airlines can keep slots which were not used during the crisis and the period immediately afterwards.

  • The Commission will not object to Member State measures to waive operational restrictions for short periods – e.g. flight restrictions – until the return to normality of the overall network and the repatriation of all stranded passengers.

  • With regard to route charges, the Commission recommends to Member States and to Eurocontrol to assess immediately the possibility to defer the actual payments for en-route charges for a defined period of time. This is an important measure to provide some relief to immediate cash flow problems. Member States should take all appropriate steps in relation to their air navigation service providers.

3. Pan-European mobility plans

The protracted closure of European airspace following the volcanic eruption in Iceland has left extremely frustrated travellers stranded in airports. The Commission wants to see pan-European mobility plans put in place for future major disruptions. In particular, the Commission would favour focusing efforts on ensuring that, if one mode of transport cannot deliver, other transport modes can quickly substitute in the interest of passengers. This will require work to remove significant bottlenecks preventing interoperability between transport modes. If there is political support the Commission will start to take forward work on these issues and report back to the next transport ministers meeting on 24 June.

Establishing an aviation platform

The Commission will establish an aviation platform, convened by Vice-President Kallas, with all stakeholders at European level, to facilitate long-term co-ordination with the air transport sector, as well as to allow for effective short-term follow up to these crisis measures.

What happens next?

Further to the transport ministers meeting on Tuesday, the Commission will work to take forward the immediate and structural actions to respond to the repercussions of the volcanic ash cloud crisis.

The information note:

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