Interview on Single European Sky and Functional Airspace Blocks

With Matthew Baldwin ( Director of Air Transport at the European Commission's Directorate General for Mobility and Transport)
By Lucia Pasquini on 15 July 2011

With far-reaching experience in the Commission and UK Government, Matthew Baldwin, Director of Air Transport at the European Commission's Directorate General for Mobility and Transport,  has now taken an important role in guiding European aviation through a very complex and challenging time.

Baldwin was in José Manuel Barroso's cabinet between 2007 and 2010 and was appointed Director of Air Transport in March 2011. He talks about his aims and priorities in terms of the Single European Sky.

Having taken up post in March 2011, what would you say are your main objectives as Director of Air Transport?

In my short time here I have been fascinated by the challenges of this job. My time as a trade negotiator has helped in some respects, but aviation is a new and exciting world for me.

The air transport portfolio is very diverse. I'm responsible for international negotiations, the aviation single market, the Single European Sky, aviation safety, and airports, as well as the fast-growing industry that is aviation security.

The sheer diversity can be daunting, and making time for everything is a challenge, but a great experience so far. I inherit an amazing legacy from mypredecessor, Daniel Calleja.

One major priority is to consolidate to ensure that the momentum is not lost. But there is new ground to break: we will also be coming up with a new package on airports in the autumn to tackle issues such as slots, ground handling, noise and the overall problem of airport capacity.

Moreover, we will be bringing forth communications on security, safety and, last but not least, our ideas on SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) deployment. 

What are your priorities in terms of the Single European Sky?

Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas has frequently stated that his overwhelming priority is the Single European Sky (SES). It goes without saying then, that if it is the key aim of the European Commission’s (EC’s) Transport Vice-President, it is by implication also mine!

We must keep up the pace of reform. The history is important, if you’ll allow me to trace the SES origins back a bit to the beginning. The EC was looking for a big-bang approach with a genuinely European dimension to airspace design.

But the Member States were not ready for this top-down approach, so we developed a bottom-up approach whereby the Commission has asked the States to work out among themselves how to implement a system of functional airspace blocks (FABs).

The priority, however, is not so much the political or institutional agreements that establish the FABs. On the contrary, it is the actual operational implementation of what is required to improve performance: operational coordination, merging airspaces, consolidating control systems and so on. In keeping with the bottom-up approach we have made a conscious decision not to try and micromanage this process.

Instead, we have appointed a very active and energetic high-level coordinator in Georg Jarzembowski, the former German MEP. He is making an important impact and has been able to stimulate the process at the political level and keep it at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Are you satisfied with the current status of the FAB development process?

I would say that in principle we at the Commission are broadly satisfied with some of the work that’s been done. It is clear that there has been a lot of work at the institutional level. But we must remember that we are after more than institutional agreements: we want substantive performance improvements.

 There is a slight concern that perhaps one or two of the FABs will be “empty shells” lacking substantive ATM agreements within them.

 The deadline of December 2012 is fast approaching, and so those FABs which are still concentrating on the institutional elements will need to pick up the pace quite dramatically.  It is a complex solution.

Take FABEC, the FAB Europe Central, for example. It has to deal with two large Member States, a very busy traffic scenario (55% of total European traffic) and the very different national conditions of its six participating countries. Other FABs are experiencing similar if not greater difficulties.

What role can you play in assisting the FAB process?

I want to be as helpful as I can. I see my role as helping to facilitate the rapid progress to fully functioning FABs that are clearly and demonstrably delivering higher performance.

I am trying to meet as often as I can with the heads of national civil aviation authorities and CEOs of air navigation service providers and other stakeholder groups.

In early July, for example, I met representatives from Hungary, Poland and Italy to discuss where they are and examine some of their proposals and suggestions. This is exactly what I think is needed. I want to participate in finding and implementing innovative and creative ideas.

Are you confident in the role of the Network Manager?

Firstly, the Commission strongly welcomes EUROCONTROL as the Network Manager, and we want to work in a spirit of real partnership. It is a remarkable joint effort between two very different institutions, and we will not overlook the pan-European aspect that EUROCONTROL brings to this arrangement.

We hope to cement this collaboration further in the form of a high-level agreement as soon as we get a negotiating mandate from our Member States.

It goes without saying that we are grateful for David McMillan’s inspired leadership as this has helped us to get this process moving with a real sense of confidence that we will be successful.

Just how important do you consider FAB performance to be?

Performance is the absolute beating heart of the Single European Sky. We can’t consider it a done deal until we have realised significant and enduring performance improvements.

David McMillan, EUROCONTROL’s Director General, was right when he said “we can’t go on like this”. It is simply not viable to keep running faster and faster just to keep still.  We can’t allow ourselves to be buffeted so badly by volcanic eruptions, bad weather and industrial action. Something has to fundamentally change.

After all, we spend the same amount of money on our air transport system as the Americans and yet they manage to handle twice the amount of traffic.

Is the European Commission ready to use its powers to ensure performance improvements?

Obviously, the Commission has a potentially strong role to play in implementing performance. The regulations give us a full set of sharp teeth should we feel that the delivery on performance is being impeded in some way.

In particular, we are very aware that airspace users are watching every move as they have expressed clear disappointment with the compromise reached with the Member States on establishing the performance targets. It is therefore an absolutely essential minimum requirement that we deliver on these targets.

But first, we await the hard work and analysis through the summer led by the Chairman of the Performance Review Board, Peter Griffiths, and his excellent team in the PRU (Performance Review Unit).

I am quietly confident that the calm, reasonable and logically iterative process in play between the Performance Review Board, Member States and the Commission will in fact deliver the required results. We know that we can’t let the process lose any momentum whatsoever.

When I look at the contribution that has been made by my predecessors and the leadership shown by people like Vice-President Siim Kallas and David McMillan it is very clear to me that the opportunity for radically improving the performance of the European air transport system has been enthusiastically taken up.

It is now up to the likes of me to complete the work in the interests of the citizens of the EU and the wider European family beyond its borders. In these difficult economic times, this is truly an area where we can make significant economic improvements and deliver a safer, cleaner, more cost-effective and better managed system for everyone.