Magda Kopczyńska

Magda, Kopczyńska, Director General at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE)

Talk of the ‘twin transition’ – the move to a more sustainable and more digital way of life – began before the introduction of the current European Commission's mandate. But the EC’s mandate saw us move decisively from words to action, presenting proposal after proposal to set the European Union (EU) on the road to its European Green Deal and Digital Age objectives. Aviation is no exception.

This year the EU will undergo its own transition, as new European Parliament Members (MEPs) are elected, new people take their seats in the Commission and on the European Council. Whoever the next Commission President is, I am sure that she or he will quickly present a vision for the coming five years. While I have no inside information on how this will look, I can say with a great deal of certainty that the focus on cutting emissions and on making more of digitalisation will remain high on the agenda.

I see my role, as Director General of DG MOVE, to lead the policy work needed to meet EU objectives, which will also ensure that our transport system is fit for the future. Each transport mode has its own challenges when preparing for a future that must be simultaneously more connected, cleaner, greener, smarter and more resilient.

"Talk of the ‘twin transition’ – the move to a more sustainable and more digital way of life – began before the introduction of the current European Commission's mandate"

But few sectors are doing so against a recent history that is quite as turbulent as that of aviation. Just as 9/11, SARS, the financial crisis and volcanic ash did in previous decades, COVID and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine have caused major fluctuations in demand and uncertainty.

I would like to thank EUROCONTROL for taking the initiative to create a solidarity fund for Ukraine and Moldova. It provides support and funding to ensure the longer-term viability of their air traffic control. The extension of the fund in 2024 was very much welcome and the Commission will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Flexibility is important – the flexibility to scale up and down as needed would significantly reduce the impact of changing demand and uncertainty in the aviation, for example. As would having the flexibility to deliver capacity where it is geographically needed.

While the benefits are clear, creating this flexibility has been challenging for air navigation service providers (ANSPs). On the Commission side, it remains a priority – not least because this is one route to greater resilience.

The capacity crunch

While aviation has been hit hard by global events in recent years, the overall growth in demand has not taken the same hit. Passenger volumes are expected to increase from 13 million in 2019, which was the busiest and most congested year ever, to 16 million in 2050.

At the same time, military aviation activities have increased sharply, shrinking the airspace available for civil aviation by around 20%. The increased presence of drones and other innovative air mobility solutions in our skies will add to crowding.

This projected imbalance between the demand and supply of airspace capacity is a major source of uncertainty for the aviation sector, not least for the EUROCONTROL Network Manager.

While I do not have the power, unfortunately, to increase the size of our skies, I can push for a collective and innovative approach, so that we make the very best of what we have.

"Creating this flexibility has been challenging for air navigation service providers. On the Commission side, it remains a priority – not least because this is one route to greater resilience."

A Single European Sky

We need to incentivise monopoly service providers to change how they operate – in other sectors, the market takes care of this.

Back in 2019, a wise person’s group representing the aviation sector drafted a blueprint to incentivise service providers. The Commission took this up in its proposal to reform the Single European Sky (SES) rules.

One of the main objectives of the reform was to create greater scalability of service provision by proposing a framework that would enable ANSPs to become more flexible by acquiring certain services on the market, improving network management and regulating ANSPs more efficiently.

Negotiations continue, with Member States’ main concern being control over investment decisions and spending by their service providers. They also wish to avoid SES rules impacting on military activities, which would be seen as endangering national sovereignty.

Regrettably this file has not yet been concluded in the Council, although I have not given up hope that it will be. Whatever the outcome, operational stakeholders must become more flexible with regard to service provision.

We are also looking to innovation in air traffic management (ATM) to help us achieve a more sustainable increase in air traffic, to integrate innovative new mobility services into our skies, and to address security requirements.

I am thinking of advanced automation and artificial intelligence in ATM to optimise routing, reduce human error and improve overall efficiency. SESAR JU (Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking) is supporting some fascinating work here that I am keeping a close eye on, work on using satellites to increase network capacity, for example.

Also notable are artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can analyse data in real time to predict air traffic patterns, enabling more effective traffic management. Collaborative decision making can improve situational awareness and lead to better network planning and coordination. Configuring airspace and virtual centres more dynamically also supports increased capacity. Better rostering and increased air traffic controller productivity are also key to increasing performance.

"When it comes to sharing our skies with new, innovative devices and vehicles, I expect the EU U-space to inspire new and optimised ways of managing our airspace."

When we update the European ATM Master Plan this year, the objective is to steer and secure commitment from all ATM stakeholders on priority innovation initiatives. The Commission continues to stand firmly behind the concept of a Digital European Sky, which was defined in the Master Plan. What we need now is for the ATM sector to pick up the pace in its deployment of digital solutions.

When it comes to sharing our skies with new, innova- tive devices and vehicles, I expect the EU U-space to inspire new and optimised ways of managing our air- space. Traditional air traffic management is built on the principle of detect and avoid, whereas the U-space is a first and strategic step towards a digitally integrat- ed airspace. It represents a model of multi-stakehold- er collaboration, showcasing the potential for com- bined efforts in developing sophisticated, integrated airspace solutions that work together to ensure safe and fair access for all airspace users.

This will become increasingly important as we look to drones to decrease emissions and congestion on our roads.

Emissions - The challenge of our era

Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. With the European Green Deal and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, the Commission has a clear roadmap to achieving climate neutrality in the EU by 2050. They show the way to cutting transport emissions by 90% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

For aviation, our major proposals came as part of the Fit for 55 Package – ReFuelEU Aviation on the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure regulation. Both have been agreed by the European Parliament and the Council. The resulting framework will support structural changes across the entire value chain, from fuel suppliers and airports to operators.

ReFuelEU Aviation sets a mandate for the minimum share of SAF within aviation fuel. The legal requirement starts with 2% by 2025, then rises to 6% by 2030, 20% by 2035, and up to 70% by 2050.

This responds to the current supply and demand conundrum by ramping up both the production and use of SAF in the EU. It will mean increased capacity and an open door for new market entrants. The Renewable and Low-Carbon Fuels Value Chain Alliance is there to support the process, allowing effective exchange and coordination to ensure that opportunities and barriers to market action are identified.

Beyond supply difficulties, the quality of fuel composition is key. The ReFuelEU Aviation review will cover this, and DG MOVE is working closely with EASA on a project exploring a potential fuel standard. The objective is to limit certain components that are judged to contribute to the non-CO2 climate impact of aviation. The scientific uncertainty on this is unhelpful; to increase our understanding, we are developing a Monitoring, Reporting and Verification procedure. SESAR projects are also assessing operational trade-offs to ensure that mitigation strategies do not come at the expense of additional CO2 emissions.

We have also launched the Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation, calling on members of the aviation community to join forces to prepare for the advent of zero-emission aircraft. I would recommend that we all keep an eye on hydrogen-powered aircraft, not only for their contribution to decarbonisation, but also to noise reduction.

People

I have spoken of the innovation needed to reduce emissions, to make ATM more efficient and to introduce more flexibility to aviation. But even in today’s increasingly automated world, innovation does not happen by itself. Alongside the latest technologies, the right regulatory framework and sufficient investment, we need the very best minds.

European aviation is a success story, and that is thanks to the people that get planes off the ground, and who are today focused on doing so more sustainably, in ever-smarter ways. As we all try to picture how flights will look in 2035 or beyond, let’s make sure we have the right people on board – those who can turn ambition into reality, and who can make sure that today’s success story continues.

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