Europe’s aviation sector is in need of a wide-spanning reform if it is to stay competitive and capitalise on the growing global market, the European Commission (EC) declared on 7 December at the launch of the new EU Aviation Strategy.

The new package of proposals looks to negotiate air transport agreements with a number of countries, tackle airport capacity constraints by speeding up the second phase of the Single European Sky project and do away with oppressive airport checks in favour of a “one-stop security” model. The plan also looks at the use of drones and proposes a new legal framework to “unleash their full potential” in civil aviation.

“European aviation is facing a number of challenges and today’s strategy sets out a comprehensive and ambitious action plan to keep the sector ahead of the curve,” said EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc, who spearheaded the initiative.

“It will keep European companies competitive, through new investment and business opportunities, allowing them to grow in a sustainable manner. European citizens will also benefit from more choice, cheaper prices and the highest levels of safety and security.”

Ahead of its release, a public consultation organised between 19 March and 10 June 2015 sampled the opinions of aviation professionals from 21 Member States, ten non-EU countries and three umbrella organisations. Their insights revealed the main areas of concern and high priorities in European aviation and helped shape the contents of the strategy.

However, not everyone thought the package lives up to the expectations. While welcoming the idea of a sector-wide restructure, major industry bodies including, the Association of European Airlines and the International Air Carrier Association, described the strategy as “weak” and “highly-disappointing” and claimed it “stops short of proposing concrete measures”.

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The main proposals: tackling growth, capacity and security

The EU aviation sector has seen great growth over the past 20 years due to liberalisation of the internal market and rocketing passenger demand. According to an EC document, 27,000 flights cross European airspace every day, representing 26% of the world market. While this traffic generates €110bn in direct GDP to the economy, the figure reaches as much as €510bn through the multiplier effect, which takes into consideration tourism-generated income.

“The EU is facing stark competition from other regions which have seen an equally big spike in popularity.”

Despite its current success, the EU is facing stark competition from other regions which have seen an equally big spike in popularity. While European airlines face restrictions in accessing markets outside the EU, other regions are expanding their operations. Asia, for example, currently has an annual passenger growth forecast of 6% and is expected to account for 40% of world air traffic by 2034.
What the EU is proposing is a novel, holistic and coordinated set of measures that combine projects already in the pipeline, such as the Single European Sky, with brand new legislative and technological advances.

The Commission thus proposes to tap into the growing global market by negotiating “comprehensive EU-level air transport agreements” with countries including China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as settling additional bilateral safety agreements with big manufacturers such as China and Japan. Regulation 1008/2008, which addresses the ownership and control of EU airlines, will also be reviewed to “bring more legal certainty for investors and airlines alike”.

At home, the strategy looks at tackling capacity and efficiency constraints “which are seriously impeding the European aviation sector’s ability to grow sustainably, compete internationally and which are causing congestion and delays and raising costs,” as described within the Commission’s communication document setting out the strategy.

According to the communication, the EU’s fragmented airspace currently costs the sector at least €5bn a year, a figure expected to increase up to anywhere between €28bn and €52bn by 2035. To ensure future demand can be accommodated, the EC urges for a speedy adoption of the Single European Sky II package focused on airspace communication, performance and air traffic management systems.

In terms of safety and security, Bulc favours the idea of implementing a one-stop security approach that would relax burdensome airport security checks, replacing them with a risk-based approach. Eliminating second checks between connecting flights with countries that have a “similar level of security to that of the EU” is the first step towards this. The first such agreement, with Canada and Montenegro, will come into effect on 29 February 2016.

The rising popularity of drones in aviation is also recognised within the strategy. The document describes them as “a technology that is already bringing about radical changes, by creating opportunities for new services and applications, as well as new challenges” and it suggests that the new regulatory format should include “a basic legal framework for the safe development of drone operations in the EU”.

The industry reacts: a promising but incomplete proposal

On the whole, the initiative was welcomed by industry bodies and think tanks as a relevant and necessary update to replace a dated regulatory framework.

Praising the initiative, vice president for the Energy Union Maroš Šefcovic said: “Competitive and efficient aviation is central to Europe’s growth. This new aviation strategy creates a framework that will enable European aviation to maintain its global leadership.”

“Competitive and efficient aviation is central to Europe’s growth.”

ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec was equally supportive, saying: “The Commission has gotten it right – taking stock of the increasing strategic relevance of air connectivity for our economy. What it has put on the table today is a commendably pragmatic approach – one that recognises aviation growth as a key enabler of the EU’s wider growth and jobs agenda.”

Others, however, saw the long-awaited strategy as a disappointment.

In a joint statement, the Association of European Airlines (AEA), the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), the European Express Association (EEA), the European Low Fares Airline Association (ELFAA), the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) and the International Air Carrier Association (IACA) said that while the strategy correctly identifies the main challenges faced by the sector, it “stops short of proposing concrete measures to address these”.

“On a number of issues, we need to go further than describing what we already know,” said ECA president Dirk Polloczek. “In particular, after years of consultations, it is time to make the – so far disregarded – social dimension an integral part of aviation policy. The aviation package clearly fails to do that and is highly disappointing in that respect.”

Furthermore, Polloczek advised that although drones represent an important technology to explore, they can still pose dangers to operators. He suggested that policy makers should reconsider issues such as the registration of drones in order to guarantee their successful rollout.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) took issue with airport charges, saying that the strategy proposes an effectively weaker regulatory environment for airport charges and called for “urgent action” to strengthen the framework and avoid rising costs for passengers.

Speaking at Global Media Day a few days after the strategy’s launch, the IATA’s director general and CEO Tony Tyler said: “European strategy is largely satisfied with the status quo rather than corralling the EU member states into implementing regulations that would deliver a much-needed Single European Sky. And it has little to say about the issue of airports taking advantage of their
Despite their discrepancies, however, all organisations pledged their commitment to work in collaboration with EU bodies in overcoming these hurdles and achieving the shared goal of a thriving, competitive European aviation market.

For the moment, there are no definite deadlines for the strategy’s rollout. According to an EC factsheet, its implementation over the current mandate depends on further consultations and decisions-making procedures.