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Vice-President of the European Commission
The Single European Sky: time to make the vision a reality
Informal meeting of EU transport ministers/Vilnius
16 September 2013
Ministers, ladies and gentlemen
It is a pleasure to be with you in Vilnius today.
I have talked several times about the lack of progress made towards achieving the Single European Sky. The most recent occasion was last year in Limassol, when I said the project was still not delivering, 10 years after it was launched. Throughout this time, European airlines and their passengers have had to put up with reduced services and missed deadlines on the route towards a Single European Sky. Progress has been elusive. It’s a bit like a mirage in the desert: each time you think you’re close, it seems to move further away and slips through your grasp. You will no doubt have heard or read what I said in Limassol, although it was not a ministerial conference. Now that we are all here together, let us use this time profitably for a political discussion about how to steer the coming debate.
I also said that we have the tools at hand to turn the Single Sky into a success, a reality at last. Achieving and completing the project is vital for the competitiveness, cost-effectiveness, growth and sustainability of Europe's entire air transport system. We can still do this. That’s why I proposed SES 2+ with some changes to speed up implementation, because this project is too important to be allowed to fail.
But the critical, negative reaction from some quarters has been surprising, to put it mildly – so surprising that I have to ask:
- do Member States still want to have a Single European Sky in the future?
- are they prepared to accept that a fragmented European sky is, in fact, not a problem and that we can remain in this situation for years to come?
- is the process of achieving greater efficiency and ending this market fragmentation too difficult politically?
I am told by some that SES 2+ demands "too much, too soon" from Member States and that there is no real urgency. I don’t agree – and I would sum up the situation a little differently. My view is that the achievement level of the Single Sky has been "too low and too slow". Just look at how quickly we are dealing with the interoperability issue and implementing the various regulations. The time has come to act, and it’s overdue.
I say this because, given the constant and rising demands on air travel and the aviation industry, time is running out fast. We need to deliver now. While Europe’s air transport sector handles things competently, our airspace is not ready to cope with the expected growth in traffic. If we leave things as they are, EU airspace will face heavy congestion – and chaos.
Surprisingly, this projection of growth has attracted criticism and scepticism. By 2035, flights are forecast to rise by 50% from 2012, which takes us up to 14.4 million flights. These figures come from Eurocontrol’s "most-likely" scenario for developments in air traffic growth. They have to be considered in a pan-European context, and not a national one.
Why? because they reflect the real European situation, not that of individual countries. And also because this is about moving from a patchwork to a network: the core principle of the Single European Sky which Member States agreed all those years ago. Since air traffic growth will be limited by available airport capacity, Eurocontrol forecasts that about 1.9 million flights – equivalent to 12% of demand – will not be accommodated by 2035. This means that airports will be so crowded that aircraft will simply be unable to take off or land. That is why we together proposed a new airports package and I strongly hope that we will finalise the legislative procedure before the end of this legislature. If we do nothing, Europe’s airlines and airports would not only have to reject a large portion of potential demand. They would also be vulnerable to delays and cancellations on an unprecedented scale, with hefty rises in congestion costs.
I have also received queries about the real need and urgency of this reform at a time of economic crisis. But most ANSPs are doing fairly well financially, despite the recent downturn in traffic. I think that view is unrealistic – so I struggle to accept the argument. Do we have to wait until the pain has become so great before we act? Surely one thing we learned in European aviation from the volcanic ash cloud crisis is that it pays to be prepared. Air traffic is going to rise in Europe. Some may dispute this, but facts are facts. At the same time, we have a capacity and performance issue and it’s not going away. We have to be able to cope in the future – otherwise we face the "doom scenario" I just outlined.
This was all agreed by Member States in 2004, when they signed up to working towards a European ATM system that gives safety and environmental benefits with enough capacity to cope competitively with the projected traffic increase. Since then, it’s true that we have had the economic crisis and downturn in demand for air travel. This was when, in 2009, air traffic in Europe fell and then began to recover – very slowly – up to 2012, which was a year marked by economic weakness in much of Europe. Economic growth is now expected to return, stabilising at about 3% a year, according to Eurocontrol.
That dip in traffic in the last few years helped to alleviate the capacity crunch that was the main driving force for SES I. But since it takes a long time to build new capacity, we need to prepare for the pick-up in traffic that statistics show us has already started. Again, we have to act now. If we don’t, the long delays of the late 1990s will return. That will cost us, economically and in terms of slowing down growth.
So I would now like to hear from you if my assumptions are completely wrong – since I firmly believe that we cannot afford to sit back and carry on in this way. We cannot continue without reform, otherwise we might as well forget the whole Single European Sky project, for the very good reasons I have already mentioned.
But that reform has to be one which is properly European. There is no point in making piecemeal changes, just as there is no point in having FABs that only exist on paper – which is still what we have today. None of the nine FABs which have been created are fully operational yet. That is despite the binding deadline of December 2012 for Member States to establish and implement them.
So it seems that there is a clear lack of political will in key areas of the Single Sky project such as the FABs. At the same time, I hear calls for reform, but only on a national basis – of certification agencies, for example – and voices calling for a repatriation of national responsibilities. How then do we – Europe as a whole – achieve the full economies of scale that we agreed was the aim of the original SES project? Please reflect on this. Do Member States really want to take this step backwards? And what should be the future role for Eurocontrol? Can we really afford to continue without reforming it – should we perhaps set up a European ATM agency instead?
Ministers, ladies and gentlemen: I think we all know that the main problem is that Europe's air traffic management systems are fragmented and inefficient. While we are not looking for a "one size fits all" Single Sky, we do need to make sure that the objectives and conditions across Europe are the same. Airspace users should enjoy the benefits of a genuinely integrated operating airspace. That is how costs will fall, while performance and efficiency rise.
Lastly, a few words on air traffic management. I do not believe that we can look forward to any meaningful change in this area unless the industry is engaged in modernisation. It is, after all, the industry which plays a vital role in improving the system’s performance.
Support services are today the biggest cost driver in air traffic management. They are a major source of inefficiency when compared, for example, with the United States, which covers a similar-sized airspace with a single provider – unlike the 38 providers that we have in Europe. The US system controls 84% more flight hours with 7% fewer controllers. It also costs nearly 40% less per flight hour. The main causes for this difference in productivity are Europe’s shortcomings in setting up and enforcing the performance scheme, ineffective supervisory authorities and the disproportionally high number of support staff working for the service providers.
Our institutional set-up needs to set the direction, targets and support policies. Large parts of ATM in Europe are a natural monopoly and here, there has be strong governance. Not only do we need ambitious – but realistic – performance targets, we have to make sure they are not watered down and do get achieved. At the same time, the industry should be given the right incentives and freedom to come up with the best ways to achieve those targets. This is why SES 2+ aims to give industry more freedom to operate and open new business opportunities. That means more hands-off economic regulation through the process of setting performance targets.
Some have said that I am being unrealistic. With the efficiency improvements that we are asking for – and urgently need if the Single Sky is ever to become a reality - I don’t think so. Ambitious? Yes, because it is my job to be ambitious. What I am proposing is done on that basis and also on the assumption that I have your support.
We have all agreed that this project is important. We also owe it to European citizens to deliver an aviation system that is competitive. In turn, that will help the European aviation sector to create more jobs in the airlines and at airports. The faster the Single European Sky is implemented, the quicker the expected returns will materialise – to everyone’s benefit.
Thank you for your attention.