The European Union is flying ahead with plans to launch a unified European air traffic control system, despite resistance from unions.
The proposed single sky system overcame a crucial hurdle last week when the European Parliament's transport committee gave it the stamp of approval. This despite union concerns over its safety and economic implications as well as opposition from some member states which fear losing sovereignty over their airspace.
The single sky blueprint, launched by Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio last autumn, was approved by the committee with minor amendments recommended by Dutch Liberal MEP Marieke Sanders-Ten Holte, Parliament's rapporteur on the implementation of the project.
The changes included provisions to address the shortage in staffing of air traffic control centres and to strengthen the operational separation between supervisory bodies and service providers.
Unions representing air traffic controllers welcomed the new moves on safety and staffing. However, they continue to oppose the plans on the grounds that they compromise air safety for short-term economic gain, at a time when investment is needed to patch up Europe's creaking air traffic control system.
“We are already under one European sky,” Joël Cariou, spokesman for the ATCEUC, an umbrella group for air traffic control unions, told me. “We don't want one European ‘market sky' but one European ‘safe sky'.”
Cariou suggested that the proposal was a cynical attempt by the EU to pander to airlines lobbying hard for cost reductions. He argues that the current system, supervised by Eurocontrol – the European intergovernmental safety body – already provides an efficient system that should be built on, not replaced. “The current system is not inefficient. It needs to be improved, for sure, but it's not a bad one,” he said.
Sanders-Ten Holte, however, contends that the 31-member supervisory body does not remove the need for a single sky because it lacks the powers of legal enforcement and extends beyond the EU.
Eurocontrol sees its role as complementary to the project. “Single sky goes hand in glove with what we're already trying to do,” director of safety George Paulson said. “We will address the operational and technical issues – safety, efficiency and the environment.”
In an apparent response to union concerns, MEPs voted in an amendment to give Eurocontrol an active role in the project. “This is a recognition of Eurocontrol's expertise in the operational and technical field,” Paulson said.
“Unions wish to be reassured that safety will be maintained throughout the exercise,” he added.
Both advocates and opponents of the single sky scheme say the air tragedy over Germany on 1 July, in which 71 died, underlines their case.
Advocates argue that the disaster throws into sharp relief the failings of ‘fragmentation' along national boundaries. Early in the investigation, it emerged that a Russian jet had first been asked to change course just 50 seconds before its collision with a Boeing over the German town of Ueberlingen, near the Swiss border.
Opponents counter that it was not a problem of airspace division, but was one of understaffing and poor facilities at air control positions. “It's not a problem of so-called fragmentation,” ATCEUC's Cariou said. “There are no frontiers in the air and the switch between centres is automatic. The disaster highlights the need for two controllers at each position at all times and identical backup systems,” he added.
Swiss air traffic control company Skyguide has admitted that an automatic warning system that should have raised the alarm much earlier had been out of action for repairs and that there were not enough staff on duty.
Eurocontrol, which has set up an action group to investigate the crash, admits that the skies need some re-mapping. “European airspace continues to adapt annually to changing demand. Single sky encapsulates the fact that the process must continue,” said Paulson.
ATCEUC had called on the European Parliament to postpone voting on the project pending further investigation and discussion with unions. Its air traffic controllers went on strike last month in France, Italy, Greece and Hungary to protest against the single sky proposal. Thousands of passengers were stranded as airports ground to a halt.
Cariou did not rule out further action if the EU failed to reach a compromise with unions. “We have no plans at the moment for strike action, but we reserve the right to strike if the outcome is unsatisfactory,” Cariou said, adding they would wait to see the European Commission's response to the vote.
In the last week Eurocontrol has decided to liaise with the European Space Agency, with a view to using space and satellite technology in civil aviation.
This article first appeared in the 18-24 July 2002 edition of The European Voice.