Adina Vălean

There are challenging times ahead, says Adina Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport

As we mark 30 years of the European Union’s internal market, I am struck by how much we have achieved in European aviation, and in such a short time. The replacement of a series of national rules by a single set of EU rules drove down ticket prices while making aviation safer and open to more people than ever before.

But that is not to say that our work here is done. And the current economic and political situations have compounded the challenges facing the sector in Europe.

An increasingly complex and constricted airspace

It is encouraging to see that flight numbers in 2022 were almost back to pre-COVID levels; some parts of the European network even exceeded the numbers for 2019. I expect this trend to continue. Meanwhile our skies are also getting ready to welcome unmanned aerial vehicles, high-altitude operations and more space launches. I am excited about what these innovations will offer in terms of services and business opportunities, but we also need to prepare for increased congestion in our airspace.

Meanwhile the sector is still dealing with the capacity issues that were familiar before COVID-19 grounded planes and created today’s staff shortages. On top of this, we are seeing industrial action, including among air traffic controllers, which further hampers network capacity and means that passengers are facing flight cancellations, delays and re-routings.

"We are simultaneously facing increasingly complex and constricted airspace, and the situation will no doubt become more challenging"

I fully respect the right to strike, but we still need to make sure that people can travel freely across Europe. This is why the European Commission has always encouraged Member States to take measures to protect overflights. It is particularly important to ensure continuity of service for flights simply crossing the airspace of a Member State where workers are striking.

This pressure on capacity comes at a time when large parts of Europe’s airspace are closed. For some sections, this dates back to the forced landing of Ryanair Flight 4978 by Belarus in May 2021. Russia’s war on Ukraine by Russia has extended the closures.

Military operations have also tripled in our skies since February 2022, and while I hope that I am wrong, I see no sign of this changing any time soon. This new situation is challenging for our shared civil-military airspace and will require much closer civil-military cooperation going forward.

To sum up, we are simultaneously facing increasingly complex and constricted airspace, and the situation will no doubt become more challenging.

The current patchwork of national air navigation service providers (ANSPs) do their best. But they are operating an airspace that remains fragmented, using systems that are often not interoperable, and have been unable to adapt to the recent fluctuations in traffic volumes. We could change this with the creation of a truly Single European Sky (SES).

Solution one: Reforming the Single European Sky

The Single European Sky was conceived to improve overall efficiency in how European airspace is organised and managed. Ten years ago, the Commission presented a proposal – SES2+ – to promote a more integrated Single European Sky. In 2020, we amended this proposal to address today’s air traffic management inefficiencies, but also to strengthen network management. We also took the opportunity to include incentives to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint, and to address gaps in the legal framework for the U-Space – the set of services and procedures that will ensure safe and efficient access to airspace for drones.

Our proposals for reform will enable the sector to adapt capacity quickly and efficiently to fluctuations in demand, and to varying geographical needs – and, crucially, without generating negative externalities such as extra cost, delays or emissions.

The positions of the Council and the European Parliament on our proposal diverge significantly, making negotiations complicated, and frustrating efforts to launch the much-needed reform of regulations governing air traffic management (ATM) in the EU. We must however maintain momentum and send a signal to operational stakeholders. Non-reform would be detrimental to the environment, climate, passengers and future generations.

Solution Two: Digitalisation

In aviation as in all other transport sectors, digitalisation is a route to greater efficiency and lower costs – both of particular value to aviation at this time. For example, digital technologies can help us to automate processes and lead to greater flexibility. Our commitment to technological innovation and deploying that innovation in ATM is clear from our support for the SESAR JU (SESAR Joint Undertaking,) which amounts to several billion euros to date.

The goal is a Digital European Sky, and SESAR has drawn up the roadmap that will take us there. It involves leveraging the latest digital technologies ("SESAR Solutions") to increase levels of automation, cyber-secure data sharing and connectivity ATM, as well as enabling the virtualisation of infrastructure and air traffic service provision in all types of airspace, including for very low- and high-altitude operations.

With greater digitalisation, we can also shrink the environmental footprint of aviation, which will be the sector’s licence to continue growing. We know that aviation has a long way to go, and that the sector is comparatively difficult to decarbonise. But ATM offers us quick wins: if we can make our routes more efficient, we can cut CO2 emissions by around 10%. We need to seize this low-hanging fruit now, while we wait for more long-term and costly measures such as sustainable aviation fuels and new propulsion technologies to be developed and scaled up.

Solution three: Network Management

Our capacity and environment challenges extend far beyond national airspaces; they are tests for the entire network.

Today, EU Member States, via their ANSPs, make commitments to deliver a specific capacity to the network from their national airspace. Demand must match supply. The EUROCONTROL Network Manager presides over this cooperative decision-making process, which involves all operational stakeholders.

Unfortunately, not all commitments have been honoured. This was most obviously the case in 2019, when we saw significant bottlenecks and the rerouting of traffic. While Network Manager was able to considerably reduce delays and cancellations, we should have been able to avoid getting into such a situation in the first place.

Going forward, we need a system that enables us to move capacity to where it is needed. We need service provision without local boundaries – enabled by data services and virtual centres, for instance, as part of our Digital European Sky. And we need to prepare for Network Manager’s operational role to become even more crucial for smooth and efficient aviation in Europe.

This is how I see the challenges for aviation in Europe. It is not an easy time for the sector. But as Henry Ford said: "Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal". So, let’s keep our eyes fixed firmly on our goals: greater efficiency within a Single European Sky; safe and reliable travel for passengers; sustainable growth, and world-leading competitiveness for the industry

"We need a system that enables us to move capacity to where it is needed. We need service provision without local boundaries"

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