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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Avoiding gridlock in the sky

Brussels, 7 November 2014

Violeta Bulc, EU Commissioner for Transport

Rome, Italy


Dear colleagues,

Welcome to you all. And particular thanks to the Italian Presidency and especially Minister Lupi for this conference. It is rare to meet in such a delightful setting. I know this demonstrates the dedication and commitment of your Presidency: to the goal of air traffic management that is greener, faster, more coherent and less congested. You have my congratulations. Rest assured: I am committed to that goal too.

It's a pleasure to be here. This is my first visit as transport Commissioner.

And let me say why I'm so pleased to have this new role. Transport is an area people care about. Every day, millions have reason to care about this issue. Every European sitting in a traffic jam, waiting in an airport, or booking their holiday. It is real and relevant to the lives of so many.

And whether it is faster travel, less traffic, more integrated networks, more competition: there is so much we can do to improve that experience and improve those lives.

So it matters to people. It certainly matters to our economy. And it is an area changing fast. On the one hand, we have the growing implications of climate change and congestion; on the other, the opportunities of innovation and digital technology.

This is an area where, working together, we can make a difference for citizens – innovate and grow. Make travelling within the EU faster, fairer, more flexible; smoother, safer, smarter.

Make our networks more attractive for business, with more integrated services.

And there is a very good example right on the table in front of us - the Single European Sky.

EU action has transformed the aviation market. Now there is more competition, more choice; the chance to fly from anywhere, to anywhere, less costly and more convenient. Most citizens have come to expect that; many businesses have come to depend on it.

Those are positive changes that can benefit us all. Alongside that there are challenges that affect us all. Whether it's climate change, Icelandic volcanoes, or the events in the Ukraine – we face these challenges together; we respond better working together. There is much we can learn from each other – from the experience and practice of other countries. I believe there is much we can learn from looking across to different modes of transport, too; the challenges they face, how we fixed them, the solutions they came up with.

Air travel is changing Europe, and connecting it. How we deal with those networks, how we supervise and manage then: that needs to be just as connected; just as joined up.

Yet today air travel leaves a lot to be desired. Journeys are longer and more polluting than they need to be. Delays are frequent; meaning congestion, queues, frustration.

The vast majority of flights cross a border; you can cross a whole country such as mine within minutes. Yet, too often, the aviation system still remains confined to national boundaries. With zig-zags making the average flight nearly 50 kilometres longer than it could be. With tens of millions of minutes of delay each year. All these add confusion and they add cost.

This has a high price tag. Fragmentation costs 5 billion euros every year; 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year; it's costing us growth and it's costing us jobs. This is what we could get back with a single European Sky.

I want to be clear: this is not a challenge to European diversity or the sovereignty of any country. It is not about procedures, powers or prerogatives. No: it is about our people. About finding a better system that can support what they need, and what the aviation sector needs. About how we can change, and best meet those needs. Time and again we have shown we can do that – and deliver a better deal for the European consumers, traveller, and business. This time is no exception.

You are aware of the political context. The Single European Sky took off in 2004; it is still far from its destination. The journey has been tricky and at times tense. And last year we proposed to revise and strengthen the framework: what is known as SES2+.

Aviation is not just the employer of 3.3 million people. It is also an enabler for innovation, and an energiser for our economy, a boost to global competiveness.

Yet – like so many other sectors – it must fight to compete. With 28,000 air traffic movements a day – we are approaching the limit of what our systems can manage. We are approaching gridlock in the skies; a dire threat for the growth of our economy, the competitiveness of airlines and airports, the mobility and opportunity enjoyed by our citizens. The EU has enough economic problems – I don't want us to add one more. We are here to solve those problems not to create them.

I do not want here to go into every detail of the negotiations we are having on the SES2+ proposal. There is another time and place for that negotiation. I know significant strides have been made in Parliament and Council. And I am confident that we can still reach an agreement on substance under the Italian Presidency.

And I stress we should be looking at other transport areas and benefit from their experience. For example: having a capable and independent national supervisory authority is a necessity for the aviation sector as it is for rail.

I am calling on every Member State to show flexibility. I am confident that we can find compromises acceptable to all parties. More than that – I am confident we have to do so, to deliver the dream of a single European Sky. We do not have long, to save our airspace from gridlock and decline.

And of course – let me remind you that our duty remains not just to improve and agree EU laws – but to implement those already agreed. We need additional steps to make Functional Airspace Blocks a reality. In some cases they remain today little more than an empty construct, offering little change or benefit. In that case, the Commission obviously had no option but to take legal action.

So that is my plea to you today. I know there are existing, established systems in place. I know you have your interests and instructions.

But I also know you want to go back to your capitals with a good news story. And not just some nice pictures of the Coliseum. I am confident that we have that good news story at hand.

If you can go home and tell your people that you agreed to work together to make a positive change. Fewer delays, less waiting around in airports. Journeys that are quicker and more direct. A sector that is greener, smoother, smarter. An experience that is more coherent, more joined up and more responsive.

That is what we can deliver with a Single European Sky. That is what I hope we can progress on today, and what we can achieve in the months to come. Thank you.


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