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10th Dec 2022

Auditors: 'Single European Sky' failed to meet main objectives

  • An EU target on flight delays 'has never been reached' (Photo: EUobserver)

The Single European Sky (SES) has failed to meet its main goals concerning reducing air traffic delays, fragmentation of the air space, and costs, the EU Court of Auditors said on Thursday (30 November).

The guardians of EU finances said the policy as a "concept" has not yet been realised, even if the program is overall "justified" as a tool against national monopolies and fragmentation.

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The SES project was created in 2004 with the aim of reducing fragmentation, inefficiencies and the high costs of air traffic management across the EU, by a progressive shift of its management from a national to a European level.

Air traffic management is the set of services, on the ground and onboard, required to ensure an aircraft operates safely during all phases of its operations.

It includes the management of the airspace, air traffic services and air traffic flow management.

In their report, the Luxembourg-based auditors found that delays in air traffic have actually increased in recent years.

Delays are better than in 2008, but have been growing since 2013, the report states, but the EU target of 0.5 minute (of delay) per flight "has never been reached".

One of the key points of the SES was the creation of so-called functional airspace blocks, nine areas dividing airspace, regardless of state boundaries, with the purpose of managing that airspace according to operational requirements of flights and not national borders.

The idea was proposed by the European Commission in 2012 but never implemented.

The auditors noted that there was "no substantial defragmentation" of airspace management. As a result, each time a plane enters the airspace of a member state, it is serviced by a different air navigation provider (ANSP) on the basis of different rules and requirements, with extra costs and time.

This, the auditors said, was due to a "lack of commitment on the part of the member states", which want to "preserve sovereignty, the legacy of national air navigation service providers", revenues and workforce.

The report also found that national supervisory authorities are not always "fully independent from air navigation services".

"Air transport is an important component of the EU internal market but the single market in Europe clearly does not enjoy the benefits of a single sky," said George Pufan, the member of the court responsible for the report.

The Court of Auditors conducted its analysis for the period 2004-2016, by visiting the European Commission, Eurocontrol (the European organisation for the safety of air navigation), the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) - an EU agency with regulatory and executive tasks in the field of civilian aviation safety - government departments, air navigation service providers and national supervisors in Spain, France, Hungary, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Countries were chosen as a sample, trying "to address small and large member states representative of different geographical blocks", auditors say.

EU funding for technological elements of the Single European Sky has so far reached €730 million and is expected to grow to €3.8 billion by 2020.

Brexit unknowns

The auditors also looked at the situation of air navigation service providers and national supervisors in the United Kingdom.

The ongoing Brexit negotiations pose an issue also concerning the future of Single European Sky.

The impact of a UK divorce from the EU is "unknown", auditors said, but could affect the "supply side of air navigation service in the UK" or the demand.

In case of a no deal, EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said in October, the UK would need to "leave the the single European sky agreement, and no longer being able to mutually recognise pilot qualifications or get take off or landing clearance".

Maurizio Castelletti, the head of the Single European Sky unit at the commission, told EUobserver in Tallinn that "it will depend on the negotiation between EU and UK", which are still ongoing.

"In the light of the United Kingdom outside of the European Union we must reconstruct the conditions that will allow us to secure a single sky as we have it now," he said.

The SES, he added, "is a network that doesn't have borders" although "there are national borders".

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