The European Commission (EC) has reacted to the recent strikes by French air traffic controllers by speeding up what it says are long overdue improvements to the European air traffic management system.
On June 11, the same day as the strikers staged a two-day walkout in protest at the Commission’s long-heralded Single European Sky reforms, the EC came out with a strongly worded statement calling for improved performance by air traffic controllers. “In recent years the delivery of performance targets has fallen significantly short of the overall level of ambition,” said European Union transport commissioner Siim Kallas. “Our airlines have had to endure more than ten years of reduced services and missed deadlines on the route to a Single European Sky. We cannot afford to continue in this way.”
Kallas blames shortcomings in the current ATM system, which he said gives member states the ultimate say on targets and on the adoption of corrective measures. The EC is now proposing to strengthen performance by making target-setting more independent, transparent and enforceable. But it faces increasing trouble from controllers in several countries, some of which are threatening to follow the French example and bring chaos to the entire European ATM system.
The strikes in France were supported by almost 100 percent of controllers. Almost a quarter of flights were cancelled during the two-day stoppage. Most of the system had returned to normality by Thursday. The EC insists that its ATM liberalization plans do not involve near-term job losses–a spokesman told AIN that the impact of the measures on controllers “was not soon and not major.” One of the main objections from controllers, however, is the EC’s demand that services be opened up to competitive tender from the private sector. Support services such as aeronautical information, meteorology, communications, navigation and surveillance, currently handled in many European countries by the state, will be separated and put out to private tender “in an open and transparent manner,” said the EC.
In another controversial measure the EC is proposing full organizational and budgetary separation of national supervisory authorities from the air traffic controller organizations they oversee. It claims this would have a very positive effect on both oversight and safety. “Many supervisory authorities are currently under-resourced and dependent on the support of the very entities they are supposed to oversee,” according to the EC.
Kallas said the EC is immediately taking steps to “strengthen the nuts and bolts of the system so it can withstand more pressure and deliver ambitious reforms, even in these difficult economic times.” He points to a coming capacity crunch as the number of flights increases by more than 50 percent over the coming 10 to 20 years. “Inefficiencies in Europe’s fragmented airspace bring extra costs of close to €5 billion a year to airlines and their customers,” he said. “They add 42 kilometers to the distance of an average flight. The United States controls the same amount of airspace. With more traffic, at almost half the cost.”