Why The Single European Sky Has Failed To Take Off

The introduction of the Single European Sky could reduce CO2 emissions from aviation in the EU by as much as 10% in one swoop. So why is this low-hanging fruit in the battle against climate change and airline delays still not implemented? Let’s take a look at what the initiative is, why the discussions have essentially gone nowhere for close to 20 years, and how airlines feel about it.

Ryanair Boeing 737
The Single European Sky, despite being in the works for over 20 years, has failed to make it off the drawing board. Photo: Getty Images

‘Intransigent and selfish’ key EU states

People and goods are, under normal circumstances, free to fly about Europe. However, not always on the shortest, most efficient routes. When traversing the continent, planes sometimes move in a zig-zag pattern between different blocks of airspace. This significantly increases delays, as well as fuel demand.

The Single European Sky (SES) initiative, laid out in 2004, would enhance international cooperation, increasing Air Traffic Management (ATM) efficiency. This would, in turn, lead to improvements in safety performance and greater capacity – as well as the aforementioned reduction in CO2 emissions by 10%.

And yet, there has been little to no progress. The lack of political will to agree to the scheme most probably stems from a resistance to allow for the control of national airspace by an external Air Traffic Control (ATC) system.

“The European Commission has been trying to deliver the benefits of SES since the early 2000s, but state inaction has meant that none of its targets have been met,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director-General, said in April this year.

“The intransigence and selfishness of key EU states and their air navigation service providers (ANSPs) threaten to collapse the latest Commission effort,” Walsh continued, stating that it is ‘now or never’ for the Single European Sky project.

Ryanair, Pilot Training, Dublin
The SES would increase efficiency and reduce emissions. Photo: Getty Images

Would open up digital transitions

In October last year, the Commission presented an updated regulatory framework for the proposed SES. According to the Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, the upgraded version would help support the European Green Deal formed in December 2019.

Today’s proposal to revise the Single European Sky will not only help cut aviation emissions by up to 10% from a better management of flight paths but also stimulate digital innovation by opening up the market for data services in the sector,” Vălean stated a year ago.

Why The Single European Sky Has Failed To Take Off
easyJet’s CEO is calling the failure to implement the SES ‘horrific’. Photo: easyJet

Airlines exasperated

Despite the renewed efforts to make the SES happen, the airline industry is not holding out much hope. During the EUROCONTROL Sustainability Summit in Brussels on Monday, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said he had ‘given up’ on the Single European Sky and that it was never going to happen. Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet, also did not mince words, calling the fact that the SES has been blocked ‘appalling’.

“The idea that you would ban some short-haul flying that has relatively insignificant impact on the environment but that you would also block the transformation of the ATC environment, I think that is just horrific,” Lundgren said while discussing European governments’ ambitions to curb demand rather than investing in solutions.