EPRSauthor By / March 6, 2014

Single European sky: state of play

More than ten years after its launch, the Single European Sky remains far from being in place. The costs of…

© nmcandre / Fotolia

More than ten years after its launch, the Single European Sky remains far from being in place. The costs of fragmentation of European airspace, coupled with the anticipated growth in traffic, have led the European Commission to launch recently an interim update of the Single European Sky rules, known as SES2+, in order to speed up implementation.


Single European sky: state of play
© nmcandre / Fotolia

Building on the achievements of the internal market and the need to cope with growth in air transport and congestion, in 1999 the European Commission (EC) launched the Single European Sky (SES) initiative. Its 1999 Communication under­lined in particular that the European Union (EU) could not maintain frontiers in the sky where they had been removed on the ground.

The SES objective is to reform the architecture of air traffic control in the EU in order to meet future capacity and safety needs. It would do this through improving the overall performance of air traffic management (ATM) and air navigation services (ANS), with the aim of: increasing airspace capacity threefold, so reducing delays; improving safety performance tenfold; reducing the environmental impact of flights by 10%; and reducing ATM costs by 50%.

European airspace remains heavily fragmented today, divided into more than 650 sectors under national air traffic control systems. This imposes extra costs of around €5 billion per year. It adds 42 kilometres in distance to the average flight, leading aircraft to consume more fuel and generate more CO2 emissions, and worsens delays. The United States’ air traffic management system handles twice the number of flights at a similar cost. If nothing is done, congestion will increase substantially, given the growth in traffic anticipated.

SES framework

The Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs)The SES framework is based on two main packages. The SES I package, launched in 2004, set the major legal framework for SES. It consists of four regulations, mostly designed to improve safety and to restructure airspace on the basis of traffic instead of national boundaries. A revision of these regulations was proposed in 2009 (the SES II package), with the objectives of tackling the challenge of substantial growth in air traffic, increasing safety, and reducing costs, delays and the impact of air traffic on the environment. The SES II package was built on four policy pillars (performance, safety, technology, and airport capacity). The performance pillar introduced EU-wide performance targets in the areas of safety, cost efficiency, capacity and the environment, in particular. Moreover, it required national supervisory authorities to establish national performance plans, or plans covering an entire functional airspace block (FAB), to contribute to these targets. Established under the SES I package, the National Supervisory Authorities (NSAs) have a major role to play in the implementation of SES, in particular in terms of supervision of safe and efficient service provision, implementation of commonly agreed rules, preparation, oversight and monitoring of the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) performance plans. This pillar also made the creation of FABs mandatory. FABs are regional airspace blocks (see figure 1 above) based on operational requirements (e.g. more direct routes) instead of national boundaries, to foster increased cooperation and better integration of airspace. Since 2010, Eurocontrol has been tasked with assisting the Commission in setting up and managing the performance scheme for air navigation services. The safety pillar introduced increased responsibilities for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to ensure that common safety rules are applied across the EU. The technology pillar focused on the SESAR project, which is working to provide a new generation Europe-wide ATM system, while in the field of airport capacity the objective was to improve airports’ capacity, in particular through the establishment of an Airport Observatory.


The Single European Sky initiative has brought some results, such as a partial reduction in air traffic delays (although that is also in part related to reduction traffic due to the financial crisis), the maintenance of safety levels, and stopping the constant growth in air traffic management (ATM) costs. However, SES is nonetheless experiencing significant delays, in particular in the achievement of the performance goals and the deployment of its basic elements such as functional airspaces blocks (FABs). None of the FABs that were to be set up by the binding deadline of 4 December 2012 by the Member States are yet fully operational; most of them appear to fulfil formal requirements instead of delivering the expected synergies and economies of scale. The Commission is currently examining infringement cases in relation to the FABs and wrote formally in September to three Member States seeking clarification in this regard. Moreover, recent audits in Member States have shown that inadequate resources and expertise have in many cases hampered NSAs, stopping them fully and independently performing their oversight duties.


Building on past experience, without departing from the original objectives and principles, the Commission has undertaken a revision of the SES legal framework, with a view to speeding up its implementation. The EC therefore proposed in June 2013 a legislative package, called SES2+, consisting of the recast of the four main regulations creating the Single European Sky and the amendment of the Regulation on the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Aiming to improve oversight and safety, the performance of air traffic management and customer focus in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the European air transport system vis-à-vis other comparable regions, the package includes the following elements in particular: the reinforcement of the NSAs’ independence through a full organisational and budgetary separation of the NSAs from the ANSPs they supervise; the strengthening of the performance scheme by making the target setting more independent, transparent and enforceable (currently Member States have the ultimate say in this regard), with a stronger role for the Commission, allowing also for the tailoring of national targets at local level; the opening-up of certain support services such as a meteorology, aeronautical information, communications, navigation or surveillance services, traditionally bundled with ATM provision, to competitive tender under normal procurement rules, although the core of air traffic control would remain unaffected; more flexible rules for FABs allowing for better cooperation among service providers, and for them to turn into industrial partnerships; a reinforcement of the role of the network manager (exercised by Eurocontrol). SES2+ will also clarify the role of the different EU-level organisations so that the Commission focuses on economic and technical regulation (performance scheme, charging, FABs, etc.), with EASA acting as its agent on drafting and oversight of technical regulation, and Eurocontrol focuses on operational activities, in particular as network manager.

European Parliament

In a resolution from October 2012, the European Parliament (EP) had already underlined the need to push ahead with the implementation of the SES and recalled the substantial economic benefits that it was expected to bring. The EP is due to vote on the recast proposal on the implementation of the SES (rapporteur: Marian-Jean Marinescu, EPP, Romania) as well as on the proposal to amend Regulation 216/2008 in the field of aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services (rapporteur: David-Maria Sassoli, S&D, Italy), based on reports from the Committee on Transport and Tourism.

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