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Keywords:

  • Single European Sky;
  • aviation;
  • transnational governance

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

This commentary focuses on the challenges facing the implementation of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative. Intended to reduce the inefficiencies of air travel across the region, SES represents an attempt to transcend national systems of airspace management, replacing them with an organisationally and technologically integrated pan-continental system. So far, however, outcomes have not fully matched the original vision of SES. In this commentary I consider how outcomes to date reflect tensions between technocratic visions on one hand, and political and economic interests on the other. In outlining these tensions, I demonstrate how SES represents a fruitful problematique for geographic inquiry.


A watershed moment in European aviation?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

4 December 2012 was meant to represent a watershed date in the history of European aviation. This was the day on which the vision of a Single European Sky (SES) should have been officially realised through the implementation of nine constitutive functional airspace blocks (FABs). SES was planned to ameliorate the inefficiencies of a European airspace fragmented by sovereign state control. Effectively re-drawing the map of European air travel, FABs had been instituted in order to reorganise continental air traffic management (ATM) into a system which transcended national borders. Under the terms of SES, FABs grouped together EU member states, plus non-EU states including Norway, Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to optimise communication and cohesion of ATM across the continent. An ambitious programme of technological development involving public and private organisations, known as SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), has sought to facilitate this reform.

However the 4 December deadline passed with only two of the nine FABs approaching operational status (Denmark–Sweden and UK–Ireland; see Table 1). While nations have agreed on who should be included in each FAB, most remain largely theoretical propositions. So far there has been little actual physical integration of national ATM systems, and technical innovations to facilitate this process have been slow to emerge. The re-drawn overlays of the European map which depict FABs (see Figure 1) have been accompanied by very few meaningful interactions between national actors on the ground. This inaction has led the European Commission (EC) to threaten sanctions against member states. It is unclear however if there is sufficient political will to force states to comply with SES requirements, even though national governments are legally bound to do so. The sluggishness of SES implementation has nonetheless deeply concerned EC representatives. At the EU Aviation Summit held in Cyprus in October 2012, Siim Kallas, Vice President of the EC and also its Transport Commissioner, criticised member states for their ‘undue protection of national interests’ and questioned whether Europe had ‘lost a decade’ where opportunities to remove serious inefficiencies had been wasted (Buyck 2012, 41). Kallas claimed that current European ATM arrangements imposed extra costs to airspace users of around €5 billion per year due to poor routing leading to delayed flight times and holding patterns. Current ATM arrangements have also previously been perceived to perpetuate severe risks to the functioning of European aviation. The disruptions caused by the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano were blamed on the siloed response of national Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) (Alemanno 2010, 101)1.

figure

Figure 1. The currently proposed FABs as of October 2012

Source: Eurocontrol (2012, 98). Reproduced with kind permission of Eurocontrol, © 2013 Eurocontrol all rights reserved

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Table 1. Composition of functional airspace blocks and status as of October 2012
Functional airspace block (FAB)Participating statesStatus as of October 2012 (Eurocontrol 2012, 98)
NEFAB (North European FAB)Estonia, Finland, Latvia, NorwayFeasibility stage
Denmark–Sweden FABDenmark, SwedenImplemented
Baltic FABLithuania, PolandFeasibility stage
FABEC (FAB Europe Central)Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, SwitzerlandUnder development
FABCE (FAB Central Europe)Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovak Republic, SloveniaUnder development
Danube FABBulgaria, RomaniaUnder development
BLUE MED FABCyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta (with Albania as associate)Definition phase
UK–Ireland FABRepublic of Ireland, United KingdomImplemented
SW FABPortugal, SpainDefinition phase

Much has been promised about the advantages of SES. It has been claimed that a fully integrated air transport network would restore Europe's economic competitiveness relative to other regions of the globe, and add €419 billion to Europe's gross domestic product (GDP) between 2013 and 2030 (IATA 2013a, 4). In making such claims about the benefits of a unified European airspace (and reinforcing the perceived superiority of supranational governance), SES can be regarded as an example of a ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ (Jasanoff and Kim 2009). Here, technological visions may reflect broader political intentions (Aarden 2009). In this commentary I explore the problem of reconciling the sociotechnical vision of SES with political and economic factors. In what follows I first provide an overview of the evolution of FABs to illuminate SES as a problematique amenable to social geographical inquiry. Through my overview of the SESAR programme, I move on to explore further how the technological dimensions of SES are interdependent with wider policy drivers.

FABs

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The considerable growth in air traffic since the 1980s stimulated the emergence of pan-European regulatory initiatives to meet the challenges posed by the ‘growing complexity of air traffic flows’ (Schubert 2003, 32). The European Commission's SES was conceptualised on the basis that European airspace management could be reorganised to reflect air traffic flows instead of national borders (Alemanno 2010, 104). It was envisaged that state-by-state control of national airspace across the continent could be replaced with ‘a single operating airspace where common procedures for design, planning and management ensure the efficient and safe performance of air traffic management’ (European Commission 2001, 31). To date, two packages of legislation have been adopted by the European Parliament and Council. The first legislation (‘SES I’), passed in 2004, brought ATM under the common transport policy and clarified a number of technical regulations, encompassing the provision of air navigation services, and the organisation and interoperability of an integrated European ATM network (Alemanno 2011; European Parliament and of the Council 2004). Further legislation (‘SES II’), adopted in November 2009, committed member states to the formation of FABs, whose intended implementation was announced on 3 December 2010, with the deadline set two years hence (European Parliament and of the Council 2009).

The replacement of state-by-state airspace oversight with a route-by-route model represented a response to new ‘operational and technical realities’ faced by aviation stakeholders, such as the increasing congestion of airspace and the uncoordinated growth of routes (Schubert 2003, 33). Under the terms of SES, national airspaces were to be reconstructed into a single common domain, the ‘European Upper Flight Information Region’, comprising a series of FABs. Proposed with the interest of maximising operational efficiency, FABs were originally planned to fully transcend national boundaries.

So far, however, FABs have evolved in a manner which closely follows the existing geographical distribution of existing national ATM infrastructure (see Figure 1). Current FAB boundaries display a significant degree of contiguity with national borders, and most FAB initiatives are regarded as being influenced by ‘geography, historical-political relationships and cultural commonalities’ (Eurocontrol 2008, 15). Overseers of European airspace have looked on with increasing concern as FAB plans emerged. The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (commonly known as Eurocontrol) has previously considered the siting of FAB boundaries on national borders as not reflecting ‘operational requirements’ and unlikely to maximise performance (Eurocontrol 2008, 15). Current FAB boundary arrangements do not fully address problematic and congested areas of European airspace. For example, the highest density region of European air traffic (as represented by the red elliptical outline in Figure 2), spans a corridor encompassing the airspace of the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Under the current arrangement, this straddles four separate FABs, which has been considered unlikely to be ‘operationally optimal’ (Eurocontrol 2008, 15). Issues have been raised concerning how FABs may effectively interact with each other. Most initiatives have ‘concentrated primarily on improvements to the design of airspace within the FAB’ (Eurocontrol 2008, 16, emphasis added), raising concerns about the connectivity of the future European network. Rather than facilitating greater efficiency, fears have been expressed that the limited nature of cross-FAB coordination, and the sequestering of airspace within FABs, may merely ‘freeze inefficiency’ into the European network (Eurocontrol 2008, 16) – the very antithesis of the original rationale for SES.

figure

Figure 2. This map shows how the highest density region of air traffic (here labelled ‘high capacity requirements’ and outlined in red), spans across four FAB boundaries (outlined in black)

Source: Eurocontrol (2008, 15). Reproduced with kind permission of Eurocontrol, © 2013 Eurocontrol all rights reserved

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National interests and commitments have long been considered potential barriers to the implementation of SES (van Antwerpen 2002). Nations have traditionally been protective of their domains due to military and other sovereign priorities (Alemanno 2010, 104). Precedents set in international law have previously enshrined the right of nations to control their airspace. The Chicago Convention of 1944 formally gave states ‘complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory’, and granted individual states the right to close their airspace (International Civil Aviation Organization 2006). This has helped reinforce a norm of national control which has hindered the evolution of SES. Opposition to SES has also come from trade union movements representing air traffic control officers (ATCOs). Unions concerned about the reputation of their member's profession have expressed repeated scepticism about the efficiency claims made by the EC regarding integration (European Transport Workers Federation 2012). Recent proposals for SES reform put forward by leading airline representatives call for a reduction in the number of ATCOs across Europe (IATA 2013a, 12–13). These proposals advocate that SES will turn air traffic controllers into air traffic managers, reflecting a changed relationship between pilots and procedures on the ground. This transition from control to management, due to the anticipated emergence of larger, more advanced automated systems in larger air traffic centres, suggests that workers would need to broaden their skills. This implies that unions could play a significant role in re-negotiating pay and conditions to reflect increased worker responsibilities, not necessarily in keeping with the interests of commercial stakeholders in SES. The technologically facilitated vision of ‘rationalisation’ still has to negotiate with worker concerns voiced both within and across national boundaries.

SESAR

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The proposed FABs currently represent something of a fragile compromise between national interests and the ideal of a reformed European sky. A closer look at related developments underpinning this attempted sociotechnical reform reveals further complexities. SESAR is a programme of technological innovation aimed at delivering the necessary improvements to fully realise the vision of Continental ATM integration. Supported by Eurocontrol and funded by the European Commission (Eurocontrol 2012), SESAR is a public–private partnership involving several different projects. Many of these are intended to enable SES to reduce dependency on purely ground-based ATM, replacing it with a satellite-linked system of ‘collaborative control’ between the ground and the aircraft (Centre for Pacific Aviation (CAPA) 2011). This calls for modernised electronic systems in aircraft (avionics), which SESAR has inter alia sought to deliver. Three phases encompass SESAR: a planning period known as the definition phase (2004–8), followed by the development phase (2008–13) to deliver the necessary technological systems and components, and a deployment phase (2014–20) in which these new technologies are to be implemented and embedded into reformed ATM infrastructure.

SESAR delivery is driven by efficiency concerns and also partly by EU member states' commitments to global environment agreements. In 2012, aviation became a costable entity in the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS). The technological advances anticipated from SESAR are a crucial means of enabling SES to deliver a promised 10% reduction in environmental impact, ‘considered one of the key drivers of sustainable development of air transport in Europe’ International Air Transport Association (IATA) 2013a, 8). It is estimated that any significant delay in implementing SESAR could lead to an energy efficiency loss of more than 150 million tons of CO2. Such a loss could ‘potentially represent a direct negative GDP impact of more than 150 billion euros for EU27 Member States’ (CAPA 2011). The impact of emissions trading represents the evolution of an increasingly complex relationship between SESAR, politics and the environment. Environmental commitments place extra pressure to deliver technical innovation, but these commitments are themselves being challenged by some key players. Organisations representing US airlines have lodged a legal challenge, pointing out that the incorporation of aviation in ETS leads to non-European airlines being forcibly included in European policy. Representatives of Chinese airlines may follow suit2. Arguments for continued investment in SESAR could be marginalised if the EU is forced to modify ETS policy in the face of international pressure.

By July 2011 performance targets for EU ATM were already lagging behind by 18 months, amid concerns of further delays to the SESAR programme. European overseers found that ‘without an effective allocation of EU resources to support or ‘steer’ SESAR, it is unlikely that the programme will be implemented in time’ (CAPA 2011). Airline representative bodies have recently expressed concerns about the deployment phase, claiming that the technological advances of the previous development phase cannot be implemented without more timely reform of the governance, safety, airport and human resource pillars underpinning SES (IATA 2013a, 5).

The costs of SESAR have come under increasing scrutiny (CAPA 2011). The SESAR plan requires all airlines to adopt and install the emerging avionics systems in a suitably timely fashion. However, early-adopting airlines which invest in these avionics will not see any operational benefit (such as reduced fuel burn from shorter routes or fewer delays at congested airports), until ANSPs invest in compatible equipment. A critical mass of equipment usage by both operators and ANSPs is required before systemic benefits are realised. The issue is not restricted to commercial airlines, as SESAR also impacts upon government air transport, including military flights. The costs to early adopters of these avionics systems is much greater than to those airlines which adopt them at a later point in time. ‘Operators which are last to equip with necessary avionics gain the greatest financial benefit, as the system will have already reached a critical level of equipage’ (CAPA 2011). Airlines and governments have ‘no positive business case’ for implementing SESAR and the issue of how these upfront costs should be met is so far unresolved (CAPA 2011, np). The so-called ‘last mover advantage’ issue has prevented any airline adopting new avionics first, and has increased calls for financial support from public European bodies to enable all airlines to install SESAR-compliant avionics simultaneously. The source of necessary financial support is unclear, however, and the budget for the 2014–20 deployment phase has yet to be confirmed (IATA 2013a, 18). Similar technological upgrades to US airspace, through a programme known as ‘NextGen’, provide lessons which should be heeded. External private actors, in the form of investment banks, have had to intervene in NextGen to meet ballooning costs, albeit with the US government providing loan guarantees in the event of default risk. Given the US experience, similar budgetary challenges to SESAR should not be ruled out. Calls for publicly funded support to airlines to overcome the last mover advantage appear incongruous, however, in an era when EU budgets are being increasingly scrutinised by national governments.

Economic pressures and environmental commitments have complicated the issue of how the public and private sectors should cooperate to deliver SESAR. Such tensions highlight the significance of considering who participates in SESAR, and how decisions over its future should be made. Future sources of continued SESAR funding, whether they emerge from governments or commercial investors (or a combination of both), will be a key determinant which influences the future of the programme.

Future directions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

A focus on SES provides a glimpse of a system in flux, where the attempted (re-)bordering of European airspace is marked by emerging tensions between national and transnational interests. Technocratic visions of integrated European airspace face complex realities, reflecting both national concerns and global economic drivers. There has been recent criticism from commercial stakeholders that the ‘bottom-up’ delegation of decisionmaking to nation-states, including FAB creation, has failed SES (IATA 2013a, 10). Instead, some airline organisations now advocate a ‘top-down’ reform of SES governance involving a Europe-wide performance monitoring system overseen by an independent regulator (IATA 2012 2013a). Although current arrangements may not necessarily be optimal, any move toward top-down governance could be time consuming and face resistance from national policymakers and other key stakeholders such as trade unions.

Anticipating how such tensions may play out invites further consideration of how present arrangements came to be. Borrowing from Social Construction of Technology research, the current status of FABs could be said to be ‘locked-in’ (David and Bunn 1987), with technical development constrained by political, economic and other social factors, creating pathways of entrenchment which has precluded optimum development. Future studies could therefore investigate how FAB outcomes to date reflect a contingent relationship between the technical, organisational and political dimensions of European aviation. More research is needed to detail the circumstances under which different FABs have developed, and to establish how and why they took their current forms. In particular, inquiry could chart the character of the negotiations surrounding their establishment. Precise accounts are needed of the overall processes of FAB formation; the participation of elite and expert bodies tasked with re-drawing the map of European airspace; what information was used and shared (and by whom); and what disagreements or specific issues arose in negotiations about the FABs. These accounts should consider a series of wider political and organisational questions. For example, has the differential entry of certain member states into the EU shaped the bounding of FABs? Do EU member states exhibit differences in their technological capacities and working practices which might shape FAB membership? Why have certain non-EU states been included in FABs, and why have other states, such as Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey etc., been less keen to participate3?

A comparison of shared and/or differing risk perceptions across European ATM may also be instructive. The prioritising of specific risks may influence how communicative and procedural arrangements are shaped between particular national ANSPs, which might not be necessarily commensurate with others. Might the shared experience of particular types of environmental risks (volcanoes, snow, thunderstorms etc.) have influenced certain nation's decisions to work together? May other risks, such as threat of industrial action, have also played a role? Some future visions of European ATM foresee a network involving a lower number of centres, utilising technology to handle a larger amount of air traffic. Have such visions taken a sufficiently wide range of risks into account?

The development and status of aircraft themselves represent further possibilities to explore the relationship between SES and wider socioeconomic contexts. The possibility of satellite-linked avionics systems, as promised by SESAR, may grant aircraft a greater degree of navigational autonomy and improve the efficiency of air travel. As we have seen, however, while such technological improvements are partly being driven by efficiency concerns and environmental agreements, they are countered by economic calculations of airlines and governments. Possible technical incompatibilities may also affect the participation of non-European aircraft. The current lack of standardisation of avionics systems across the globe is considered problematic (Pacific Asia Travel Association 2013). Critical comparisons of the costs and benefits, perceived and actual, associated with SESAR could greatly help to understand the linkages between technical outcomes and political and economic calculations.

Through addressing these and other such areas, inquiry would ultimately help to address another key priority: critically investigating, and possibly deconstructing, the notion that transnational governance ‘depoliticises’ technical procedures and decisionmaking (Boin and Rhinard 2008, 16). When considering SES, where is power being exercised, and in what form?

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

I would like to thank the referee and the editor for their comments, which have greatly improved this commentary.

Notes
  1. 1

    ANSPs are organisations which provide and oversee the operation of air traffic control and airspace management in national sovereign jurisdictions.

  2. 2

    In response to such opposition, the EC, in November 2012, proposed a 1-year exemption of intercontinental flights from the EU ETS (IATA 2013b). However, this was based on the proviso that a global agreement on aviation emissions trading could be reached in the interim. EC representatives have made it clear that intercontinental flights could once again be included in EU ETS if insufficient global progress is made.

  3. 3

    It is notable that the composition of some FABs has changed significantly over time. For example, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland had originally participated in NEFAB, but later the former two nations opted to form their own FAB. Iceland is also now notable by its absence in NEFAB, as is the devolved territory of Greenland.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. A watershed moment in European aviation?
  4. FABs
  5. SESAR
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  • Aarden E 2009 Technoscience, technological cultures and socialisation Journal of Science Communication 8 14
  • Alemanno A 2010 The European regulatory response to the volcanic ash Crisis: between fragmentation and integration European Journal of Risk Regulation 1 101106
  • Alemanno A 2011 What happened and lessons learnt: a European and international perspective in Alemanno A ed Governing disasters – the challenges of emergency regulation Edward Elgar, Cheltenham 312
  • Boin R A and Rhinard M 2008 Managing transboundary crises: what role for the European Union? International Studies Review 10 126
  • Buyck C 2012 EU's move to Single-Sky initiative stalls Aviation Week & Space Technology 10 December 41
  • CAPA 2011 Europe faces up to question of funding for Single European Sky Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (www.centreforaviation.com/analysis/europe-faces-up-to-question-of-fundingfor-single-european-sky-54971) Accessed 25 May 2012
  • David P and Bunn J 1987 The economics of gateway technologies and network evolution: lessons from electricity supply history Centre for Economic Policy Research Paper 119 Stanford
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