Article

The crisis is also an opportunity for rebuilding Europe’s aviation system

Rebuilding Europe’s aviation system

"The current crisis provides an opportunity to make the sector more resilient, more sustainable and more competitive."

Article by Henrik Hololei, Director-General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission

I think we can all agree that the past six months have been particularly challenging for all of us. For aviation the world turned upside down as people simply stopped travelling, forcing us to adapt to a new grim reality.

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic exposed many weaknesses across our aviation system for which we did not have a quick fix. Liquidity was an immediate concern, one that would threaten the existence of many players in the European aviation value network. Against this background, it is safe to say that the impact on the sector has been catastrophic, not only for aircraft operators, but for every player in this intertwined network: airlines, airports, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), aircraft manufacturers, ground handlers and those in travel retail.

That being said, I would like to pay tribute to the work of EUROCONTROL, under the strong leadership of Eamonn Brennan, to identify relief measures for ANSPs and Member States, and for the efforts to cut the agency’s costs. This work has played a major part in stabilising the situation, in ensuring we have a safety net in place and ultimately preventing the collapse of the route-charge system. A crisiscan put any partnership under pressure, but in this case I am more convinced than ever of how well EUROCONTROL and the European Commission (EC) are working together to support European aviation in these challenging times and to lay the groundwork for future recovery.

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At the beginning of the crisis revenues in aviation evaporated overnight, and financial support was absolutely critical. We won’t know the full extent of the impact for a while, but one thing is already certain: that we must now – together – rebuild a robust aviation system. This will be essential for wider economic recovery.

The European Commission will of course continue to ensure that the aviation sector receives the best possible support during these difficult times. For grants and loans, we need to ensure that taxpayers’ money targets sustainable investment. The main challenges for aviation before the pandemic were to become sustainable and to address a lack of capacity. The sustainability challenge has not disappeared, and recovery needs to take that into account. Sustainable growth is essential across the entire transport sector once we are out of the coronavirus crisis.

As restrictions were lifted in a gradual and coordinated manner, passenger flights within Europe resumed in June and July.

Unfortunately a second wave of uncoordinated and – arguably from a health perspective unsubstantiated – restrictions across Europe slowed down the recovery in early August. Traffic is now less than 50% of 2019 levels and might go much lower. The Commission will continue to play its part in ensuring that any measures taken by Member States that restrict free movement due to the coronavirus pandemic are coordinated and clearly communicated at the European Union (EU) level.

Longer term, our priorities from before any of us had ever heard of coronavirus still stand. We remain committed to the European Green Deal objectives, which means cutting transport emissions by 90% by 2050. Every transport mode must do its bit to cut emissions, including aviation. And we still need to tap into the enormous potential of digitalisation and smart solutions. Ultimately, pursuing these objectives is also key to greater resilience against future crises, as our forthcoming Strategy on Sustainable and Smart Mobility will make clear later this year.

Recovery plan for Europe

The Recovery Plan for Europe is the crown jewel of the EU’s recovery process. It will help repair the economic and social damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, harnessing the full potential of the EU budget. A new €750-billion recovery instrument called Next Generation EU, accompanied by a revamped EU budget of €1,100 billion, will support the hardest hit sectors of our economy, including the aviation sector.

For example, the Sustainable Infrastructure Window is specifically designed to support private investments in transport infrastructure and fleet renewal, with the greening of mobile assets already having been identified as a priority. The Recovery and Resilience Facility, the largest instrument created under Next Generation EU with a total budget of €560 billion, also offers opportunities for the air transport sector’s green and digital transition. This funding will be used by Member States on the basis of Recovery and Resilience Plans, which will detail the sectors to benefit from such support. These plans will be embedded in the European Semester, and aligned with national energy and climate plans.

"A new €750-billion recovery instrument called Next Generation EU, accompanied by a revamped EU budget of €1,100 billion, will support the hardest hit sectors of our economy, including the aviation sector."

Finally, a reinforced Horizon Europe budget will ensure that Europe continues to drive research and innovation in transport, as it has been doing through the SESAR and Clean Sky programmes. The final parameters of the plan still need to be agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

Reforms

Winston Churchill once said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. That is why I firmly believe that the recovery, and addressing the weaknesses that the crisis exposed, must also go hand in hand with the structural reforms that were already needed pre-coronavirus. They will not disappear, and we need to address them today.

As a first step, we must have an open and constructive dialogue between all aviation stakeholders, national authorities and European institutions. This is why we launched our aviation recovery round table initiative. As painful as the current crisis is, we have no choice but to try to turn it into an opportunity – an opportunity to make the sector more resilient, more sustainable (both from an environmental as well as from a social perspective) and more competitive.

Second, we need a swift agreement on the Single European Sky (SES) reform, followed by an equally swift implementation. If our recovery fails to address our structural and capacity problems we will have failed. Flexibility and resilience must become part and parcel of air navigation services. Reforms are also necessary from an operational perspective to make sure that airspace design and configuration is up to date and ready to deal with future challenges. The crisis provides an opportunity for reflection, to ensure that infrastructure is neither out of date or redundant.

Digitalisation and automation

We need a sector that can reap the benefits of digitalisation and automation. For example, we need an optimal regulatory, operational and technical framework, if we are to benefit from unmanned aircraft operations, initially at low altitude. This is a prerequisite for safe, efficient and secure access to airspace for a large number of drones across both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.

"We have no choice but to try to turn it into an opportunity to make the sector more resilient, more sustainable."

Together with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and building upon the results of the SESAR research and demonstration projects over the past three years, we are working on the creation of the U-Space, an unmanned traffic management system.

Sustainability

The European Green Deal sets the EU’s overall ambition of creating the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Our objective is to use the recovery as an opportunity for aviation to become more sustainable. The ReFuelEU Aviation initiative has an important role to play here. Sustainable aviation fuels have the potential to significantly reduce aircraft emissions, particularly liquid advanced biofuels and electro-fuels, which are fully compatible with current technology and already certified by EASA for up to 50% of the fuel used during a flight. However, this potential is largely untapped as such fuels represent only 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption. This initiative is expected to deliver by the end of this year. I firmly believe this is doable. I have heard strong calls from the Member States, the aviation industry, the fuel industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), for EU policy action to bring sustainable fuels to aviation. We are ready to operate this transition and massively scale up our production in the EU.

The Commission will also continue to support the SESAR and Clean Sky joint undertakings. Under the latter, stakeholders from the aeronautics industry and research community have already proposed a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda that acknowledges our climate goals and demonstrates an ambition to have new, disruptive technologies ready by 2030. This would create opportunities for industry to market these technologies towards 2035. In addition, for carbon-neutral aviation to become a reality, we need the right infrastructure. Multimodality is key here, which is why the Commission will support projects creating greener access to airports by integrating them into a genuinely sustainable multimodal network.

"Sustainable aviation fuels have the potential to significantly reduce aircraft emissions. However, this potential is largely untapped as such fuels represent only 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption."

We have also published a call for research proposals under the Horizon 2020 Green Deal Call on “green airports and ports as hubs for sustainable and smart mobility”, which focuses on large-scale demonstrations of green airports.

Finally, Europe cannot decarbonise aviation alone. We also need to continue working with our international partners, including on the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The programme will kick off on 1 January 2021, and the offsetting programmes and emission units have now been set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Regional and international cooperation

Going beyond EU issues towards pan-European cooperation, ensuring close collaboration with our closest neighbours in the region remains a priority for the years to come. The European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and ICAO are key partners to that end. We are collectively stronger when we act together to tackle global challenges.

Looking ahead, there will certainly be much to keep all of us very busy in the coming months. Recovery will not be immediate, and nor will the switch to a more sustainable and smarter way of flying. I would like to emphasise that while we are hopeful about recovery, we are not there yet, and I would therefore urge caution. However, I cannot underline enough the importance of smooth cooperation between European institutions, but also between Member States and industry. This really is the not-so-well-kept secret to success.

Finally, I just want to say that I believe in this sector and its ability to recover, modernise and continue to grow, offering people opportunities and choices to discover new places, visit old places and see friends and family across the world. And to offer businesses vast opportunities and to continue to support high-quality and highly skilled jobs. This sector has successfully gone through many crises and always learned from them. It is because of the dedicated people who work in this sector and I fully trust their ability to make this sector again a great success.

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