Europe Could Reform ATM Pricing to Drive Down Emissions

 - November 10, 2021, 10:42 AM
SAS and Frenchbee flew a pair of Airbus A350 airliners in close formation from France to Canada to demonstrate how reductions in fuel burn can be achieved. (Image: Airbus)

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) is seeking to compel air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and their airline customers to operate more fuel-efficient routes as it aims for up to a 10 percent reduction in carbon emissions based solely on air traffic management (ATM) improvements. DG MOVE officials addressing today’s EASA Safety Conference called for stronger political leadership and legally enforceable measures to compel the industry to achieve a significant improvement in operational efficiency.

Christine Berg, who as DG MOVE deputy director-general is in charge of the commission’s Single European Sky (SES) initiative, said it plans to introduce a common unit rate for air navigation fees to remove incentives for airlines to fly less direct routes to benefit from lower ANSP charges. She added that the agency intends to structure fees so that airlines with “better climate performance” are rewarded with lower ATM charges.

DG MOVE is preparing to initiate a new round of negotiations between the European Council of Ministers—consisting of government ministers from the 27 European Union (EU) states—and the European Parliament and hopes to reach an agreement on the new charging structure by the end of 2022. Berg said that the new structure could be introduced in 2025 through the SES process.

Speaking as the United Nations COP26 climate change conference in Scotland was addressing the need to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, DG MOVE director-general Henrik Hololei said EU member states need to show stronger political leadership. He suggested that ANSPs are unlikely to support more sustainable flight routings without legally binding inducements.

Regula Dettling-Ott, from the SES performance review body that is tasked with improving the performance and cost of ATM services in Europe, said inefficiencies that are responsible for between 6 and 12 percent of the air transport industry’s carbon dioxide emissions could be eliminated. “But we need to ensure that the cheapest route is always the most environmentally friendly,” she commented.

Several speakers at the EASA conference, including leaders from low-cost carriers Wizz Air and Easyjet, said that the monopolistic market position enjoyed by ANSPs in Europe merits legal compulsion to change commercial practices to improve the industry’s environmental sustainability. “Single unit charging [for ATM services] make perfect sense and we would see an immediate change in behavior,” said EasyJet COO Peter Bellew. “The three main flight planning software companies could adjust their templates within 12 months [to take account of the new charging formula]. Radical change is needed, and it would be safer; it’s scandalous that aircraft are still flying higher than they need to [to save costs].”

Piotro Samson, director-general of Poland’s civil aviation authority, showed the conference an air traffic map illustrating how airlines consistently fly longer routes to avoid more costly ATM charges in neighboring Germany. On Poland’s eastern borders, the map showed conflict zones, such as Belarus, that have become no-go zones for operators.

Jo Dardenne, from Brussels-based lobbying group Transport & Environment, said that ICAO’s initiatives on reducing aviation’s carbon footprint have not been effective. She criticized the United Nations agency for advocating carbon-offsetting schemes that she said are “too cheap” and the use of sustainable aviation fuel made from unsustainable materials and processes. “Having a real green new deal for aviation means pricing emissions more effectively so that the user pays, and we also need to remove operational efficiencies,” she said.

However, Marian-Jean Marinescu, a member of the European Parliament, said that mounting political momentum for stronger environmental action could result in more aggressive legislation to increase the price of airline flights to drive down traffic levels. While not mentioning the prospect of measures such as taxing commercial aviation fuel, which has been widely called for by environmental groups, he stressed a need for stronger political leadership, suggesting that EU leaders could no longer claim that reforming measures would breach national sovereignty.

Asked by AIN whether the COP26 conference might provide fresh momentum for the initiatives raised at the EASA event, Berg said she had no expectations beyond raising awareness for the potential for ATM reforms to make a difference.

Dettling-Ott concurred, maintaining that even though political consensus appears to be strengthening for action to slow climate change, this is not resulting in decisive outcomes. “It is very challenging to convert the [political] agreement into action,” she said. “The gap [between agreement and action] has not shrunk. In fact, it’s become bigger, and [EU] member states are still adhering to an older [ATM] system that must be overcome.”

The EASA conference was held a day after Airbus and partner airlines SAS and Frenchbee conducted a flight demonstration to show how improved use of airspace can reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions. The carriers flew a pair of A350 widebody airliners in tandem, just three kilometers apart, from Toulouse in France to Montreal. Airbus said that more than six tons of CO2 emissions were saved by this approach, demonstrating the potential for 5 percent fuel savings on long-haul services.

The close-formation operation was made possible by using a flight-control system developed by Airbus so that aircraft can safely fly in the wake updraft of a jet in front of them, and so reduce engine thrust and fuel burn. The company said that this approach mimics the flight pattern of migratory geese flying in their distinctive V-shaped formation.

“This demonstration flight is a concrete example of our commitment to making our decarbonization roadmap a reality,” said Airbus chief technical officer Sabine Klauke. “We have received a strong level of support for this project from our airline and air traffic partners, plus regulators. The opportunity to get this deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of the next decade is very promising.”