European Regions Airline Association General Assembly 2007

 - September 27, 2007, 6:33 AM

Delegates from Europe’s regional airlines are “delighted” to be returning to the Greek capital Athens this month for their annual general assembly because of the city’s great success as a previous venue, according to Mike Ambrose, director-general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA). Aside from addressing industry challenges and opportunities, the more than 500 expected delegates will hear from the European Commission’s air transport director, Daniel Calleja-Crespo, and Bryan Bedford, chairman, president and CEO of Republic Airways Holdings.

If this year’s assembly carried a theme, it would no doubt be the acquisition and retention of trained and skilled staff, an issue Ambrose describes as “fundamentally important.”

He estimated the capacity of recognized training institutions to be between 4,500 and 5,000 pilots a year, compared with annual demand for some 7,000.
Acknowledging the industry’s classic cycles between surplus and shortage, Ambrose said the current situation doesn’t relate to capacity shortage but rather some “regional explosions,” in terms of low-cost carrier (LCC) start-ups and geographic market differentials, which “suck pilots away.”

The ERA leader sees an opportunity for regional airlines to highlight the lifestyle available to flight crews operating smaller airliners. “LCCs clearly take some of our pilots away,” said Ambrose. “If you’re in the right-hand seat of a small turboprop twin, you’ll probably see it as good for your career to move into the same seat of an Airbus A320. We have to sell the [regional-airline] lifestyle: get home every night, with no changes to time zone or diet.”

Ambrose recognizes factors contributing to “a lack of interest” in maintenance training. “This [career] is much more difficult to sell because the work has to be done at night for reasons of environment and demand, and the hours are unsocial.”

Focus on Environment

As operators prepare to meet in Athens, three principal topics– the environment, infrastructure and regulation–dominate the discourse within the European regional aviation community, according to Ambrose. Perhaps most urgently, the air-transport industry needs not only to win the environmental battle technically but also in the general public’s perception, he said.

A so-called climate-change camp held in August by environmental protesters at London Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, had “backfired,” according to Ambrose, since it provided print and broadcast media an opportunity to highlight the actual performance of the air-transport industry.

He said that growing concern about the environment has gathered momentum and been “captured” in the EC’s proposed emissions-trading scheme (ETS). It will likely remain the key cause of concern for another decade until the industry enters a traumatic phase under which it has to offload many passengers.

The ERA official said the ETS, which permits the auctioning of unused emissions “credits” and which airlines claim will hold serious implications for all operators, remains problematic. “I can understand why Members of the European Parliament thought the ETS was a good idea,” he told AIN. “The question is, ‘Do they believe in aviation?’ They must decide if they want to support air transport subject to improved environmental performance, or if they want to reduce it to a minimum whatever the industry’s [emissions].”

Ambrose said two competing points surface at all European aviation meetings: the first is that net revenue from auctioning of ETS credits should go solely toward investment in research to moderate aviation’s environmental impact; and second, that revenue should go to developing countries or to competing transport modes with poorer environmental performance. The latter “seems to be what [members of the European Parliament] want to do [but] this does not make logical sense,” he said.

Asserting that aviation accounts for no more than 2 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions, Ambrose continues to rail against the relative lack of attention paid to the environmental effects of other modes of transport. “Even if it were four percent, the proportion contributed by commercial shipping is more than double this amount and [the marine industry] is worried it will be next on the list [for emissions regulation] because it has been ordering new capacity even more quickly than have airlines,” said Ambrose. He said shipping had previously been somewhat protected because “a Boeing 747 flying between London and Singapore is a more attractive target for criticism than a container ship plying the same route.”

Infrastructure Improvements

Meanwhile, Ambrose has tired of hearing about requirements to improve European air-transport infrastructure. “The need is not just to talk, but to enact the [planned] Single European Sky [SES],” he said. “We’ve seen little development and there is every indication that the European Commission is losing patience with protection of sovereign airspace [by some member states].

“The EC–and ERA–support for SES air traffic management research [SESAR] has got to be made to work. But unless there are high-level decisions to adopt and implement proposals, it will be another expensive waste of money,” warned Ambrose, adding that the “paradigm shift in aircraft separation” offered by the SES “must be the way forward.”

Major considerations, according to the ERA official, must include the technology required “to move responsibility into the cockpit [to be] less dependent on ground control.” Such a development will require the participation of many entities, including avionics manufacturers, aircraft OEMs and training organizations. “Every part of the ‘food chain’ must be brought into harmony,” said Ambrose.

“Traditional air navigation services providers must recognize the need for changes to technology and procedures; air traffic control officers must become managers rather than executors [in the process] in the same way that the airline captain is not [just] the pilot but, rather, is the manager of the entire crew including cabin staff,” said Ambrose.

He accepts that the airline industry should have to be tested. “We should have to justify [ourselves],” said Ambrose. Adding that in the coming year European regionals wanted to support the SES, he also underscored the win/win scenario offered by increased use of continuous descent approaches (CDAs) to airports whenever possible. CDAs, he stressed, would result in reduced noise, lower emissions and less risk of mistakes, compared with established stepped-approach procedures.

Ambrose does see one gleam of light on the horizon: European Commission vice president Jacques Barrot’s optimistic report earlier this year. But lack of progress in another area has tempered his enthusiasm. “A disappointment has been the European Commission’s failure to implement its own principles of better regulation,” he said.

In short, Ambrose called for “better regulation” as spelled out by the Commissioner and applied by the EC and all other European regulatory agencies.