ERA’s McNamara Sharpens Focus on Small Carriers

 - May 3, 2014, 2:03 AM
A new provision inserted into the EC's passenger rights package leaves regionals liable for missed connections.

With many of Europe’s regional airlines feeling unloved and forgotten by the central powers, ERA director general Simon McNamara has spent much of his first year visiting as many airline members as possible to understand how they tick, and what challenges they face. “We’ve put a lot more focus on the membership,” he told AIN. “And we are trying harder to let our members know what we’re doing and why.”

Although the association’s membership numbers dipped in recent years–in response to both the recession and consolidation–McNamara recently saw Belgian carrier VLM become the 49th airline member. The ERA is unusual, he said, in also counting more than 100 other affiliate members from suppliers and service companies, such as law firms, to the OEMs–notably Bombardier, Embraer, Sukhoi, Mitsubishi and ATR.

Change in Brussels

After a year of frantic activity–not least with EU ETS wrangling and work on the replacement for Regulation 261 on passenger rights–McNamara said that Brussels was “winding down” before European Parliament elections this month.

McNamara is working to sharpen the focus of the ERA following a strategic review last year. “We’ve become more focused on intra-European, short-haul carriers with smaller aircraft, which tend to be smaller companies,” he said.

“The last five years have been really hard for everyone,” he reflected. “But we’re now starting to see growth. We’ve seen consolidation of network carriers such as IAG and Air France, creating dominant airlines…and the low-cost carriers [are growing]…The growth of LCCs is hurting the network carriers more than the regionals.”

Regionals, he continued, “represent 17 percent of flights [in Europe], with approximately 800 aircraft. And the size of the aircraft [once steadily increasing] has stabilized,” he said. “Personally I am the most optimistic I’ve been in the past four years about the state of the industry, and my sense is that there is a general sense of optimism. But that’s not to say that there aren’t parts of the market where it’s still a difficult market.”

Turning to regulatory issues, McNamara called the European Parliament “militant and pro passengers.”

“And there is a standoff between the Council and Parliament,” he added. “It’s a big task for them to agree before the elections…and they’ve got ETS to do first. [ETS is] adding complexity and cost for European operators. While they are right to wait for an ICAO [global] scheme, they are absolutely wrong to cling on to a small part [of ETS] just to save face.”

Shortly after McNamara made his comments, on April 3, the EU agreed to the proposal to continue the ETS “Stop the Clock” provisions until 2016. “If this had been a national government and not the EU, we would have seen resignations. It’s a massive climb-down,” he said.

Regulatory Agenda

With a fresh passenger rights package, ERA has found itself fighting a new concept inserted by the European Commission under which late feeder flights could leave regional carriers liable for compensation extending to any missed connections. “This could cost €600 per passenger,” said Leo Massetti, ERA manager of regulatory affairs. “We’re trying to apply the argument that where the airline is not responsible or has done everything it can, it shouldn’t have to pay up.”

Other areas covered by the team include the increasingly troubling “criminalization” of air accidents and security. Meanwhile, in October this year the new EU-OPS specifying minimum safety and related procedures for commercial fixed-wing aviation will come into force. “It hasn’t done a whole lot for harmonization,” said ERA general manager of regulatory affairs Nick Mower. “The FAA and others find it strange that although the EASA makes regulations, countries can still do their own thing.”

Finally, the European Single Sky and Sesar programs (in effect, Euro-NextGen) both represent massive cost concern for regional airlines, which tend to operate older, smaller, less valuable aircraft many hope will remain in service for another 15 to 20 years. “The biggest problem is that airlines are mandated to fit datalink, ADS-B et cetera,” said Mower. “But the ground stations are not yet equipped for it anyway.”

The ERA continues to press members to get more involved in the six core Pilot Common Projects, now designated as a way to kick-start Sesar. The two that will most affect regional aircraft, according to the ERA, are RNP capabilities into major airports (addressing critical network performance deficiencies); and initial sharing of trajectory information between air and ground using i4D (initial 4-D, where flow management takes account of the fourth dimension of time).

“Lots of it is based on the heavy metal, so we are urging regional [aircraft] manufacturers to get involved,” said Mower. However, many operators find they can’t afford to dedicate aircraft, time and resources to the convoluted legal process that accompanies a trial.

Another big effort for McNamara has centered on forging closer ties with the U.S. Regional Airline Association (RAA). “We’re going to start working more closely with RAA, and we’ll be taking a delegation of the [ERA] president and some vice presidents to the RAA Convention in St. Louis. Boet Kreiken [ERA president] is going to talk at the start of the event. We are working together [with RAA president Roger Cohen] on a memorandum of cooperation we expect to launch at the RAA event.

“We have the same aircraft types, similar operations–busy hubs et cetera–the same safety challenges and increasingly some of the same commercial challenges. For example, [we both supply] capacity to the big commercial carriers…even though we have totally different markets and regulatory environments,” said McNamara.