European Commission’s Single Sky, Traffic Rights Goals Still Elusive

 - March 4, 2013, 2:07 PM
European Commissioner for Transport Siim Kallas expressed frustration over a lack of cooperation from the European Union’s member states on the Single European Sky effort. (Photo: Thierry Dubois)

European Commissioner for Transport Siim Kallas admitted to excessively slow progress on the Single European Sky (SES) air traffic management program last week and characterized Russia’s continued charges for Siberian overflights as unacceptable. He has been threatening European Union member states with legal action over their failure to carry out their respective SES responsibilities. Separately, he is planning a March 21 meeting in Moscow to pressure Russian authorities to address what he views as “unfair” overflight fees. “At some point we realized almost nothing was moving,” Kallas said of the SES effort during a February 28 press briefing in Brussels. Recent moves include a “wave of letters” sent to member state ministers, suggesting the commission could file infringement proceedings against their countries. The SES plans call for member states to create larger “functional airspace blocks” meant to de-fragment Europe’s airspace.

“Deadlines have been missed repeatedly,” said Athar Husain Khan, acting secretary general of the Association of European Airlines (AEA). According to the AEA, about €5 billion ($6.5 billion) of airline losses accrue annually because of air traffic management inefficiencies on the continent. An executive on Kallas’ team said he agreed with the estimate.

Member states have expressed reluctance to consolidate their air navigation service providers, often for sovereignty and defense reasons. Civil aviation authorities see airspace as “their empires,” a European Commission SES specialist said. “But the system is not sustainable; it is surviving because of the recession in air traffic,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, the multiple bilateral agreements that member states have signed with Russia for Siberian overflights are turning sour. Under the protocols, European carriers pay a combined €300 million ($390 million) per year to Aeroflot for the right to use critical routings to countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Moreover, Russia limits capacity, contravening the Chicago Convention on civil aviation, according to a European Commission expert.

Kallas deemed the situation “unfair,” especially given the failure to implement two previous agreements to phase out the overflight payments. He plans to insist that Moscow adhere to the agreed principles, hoping to use as leverage the fact that 40 percent of Russian passengers go to EU destinations. However, for years he has sought a mandate from member states to negotiate a new traffic rights accord at the European level.