Violeta Wants to Help Beleaguered European Airlines

Europe’s global airlines have lost much ground to intercontinental competitors, mainly from the Gulf region but also to a number of Asian carriers and particularly state-owned Turkish Airlines. To get them back on their feet and grant them a level playing field for competing successfully with their global rivals the EU Commission has today (7 December) presented an 18-page framework called “Aviation Strategy for Europe.” If approved by the parliament it could initiate a new era.

Violeta Bulc
Violeta Bulc

Main aim of the package presented by the European Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc is to improve the competitiveness of EU-based passenger and cargo carriers. The new scheme replaces an initiative launched in 2004 by Brussels’ EU politicians to establish common rules in aviation, which hasn’t proven to be very successful. The Commission states that the new framework highlights four priority areas where action is urgently needed. 
These are:

Tackle limits for growth in the air and on the ground
As a main field of action the strategy stresses the importance of realizing the much debated but never achieved Single European Sky. This shall go hand in hand with monitoring intra-EU and extern-EU connectivity to identify shortcomings. The fragmentation of the European airspace costs at least €5 billion a year and up to 50 million tons of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
If ground infrastructure remains at the current level, constraints at major EU airports will become worse, costing up to 818,000 jobs by 2035, says the Transport Commission. Therefore, much effort is needed in the years to come to improve the ground infrastructure according to demand. The European Union plans to invest €430 million each year, until 2020, in a SESAR called research project to pave the way to put the Single European Sky into practice.

Placing the EU as a leading player in global aviation, whilst guaranteeing a level playing field
According to the paper, this aim should mainly be achieved through new aviation agreements negotiated collectively by Brussels for all member states with countries located in key growth markets. This way, the EU puts itself in the driver seat, taking over legal responsibility for all future air traffic affairs involving the club’s 28 member states. Compared to the present situation this marks a profound change since up to now each EU member negotiated their aviation treaties autonomously with non-European contractual parties. Brussels argues, that once this non-discriminatory competitive goal is accomplished it will end distortions resulting from highly state aided carriers such as the Gulf trio, Turkish Airlines, some Chinese airlines and others that the EU suspects of snatching away market shares at the expense of their commercially driven European rivals. 

Maintain high EU standards
The paper stresses that it is crucial to maintain high EU standards for safety, security, the environment and social issues. However, when it comes to measures to enforce these aims Violeta and her Commission colleagues remain remarkably vague. All they say is that “the strategy proposes important measures in this sense, with an update of the EU's safety rules in order to maintain high safety standards alongside growing air traffic.”
Furthermore, the paper stresses that the Commission will seek ways to reduce the burden of security checks and costs, through the use of new technology and a risk-based approaches. The “Aviation Strategy” further appeals to the EU member states to reinforce the social dialogue and employment conditions in aviation, and pursue robust global steps to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards.

Quo vadis EU Aviation Strategy? Only time will tell   -  pictures EU Commission
Quo vadis EU Aviation Strategy? Only time will tell - pictures EU Commission

Make progress on innovation, digital technologies and investments
In the final chapter of its paper the Commission stresses that innovation and digitalization will be a catalyst for the development of aviation and its function as an enabler of growth. This accounts particularly for the fast evolving drone sector, where Europe must in particular unleash its full abilities. To leverage this potential the Strategy advocates a legal framework to ensure the safe use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Critics demand an implementation concept
Although basically welcoming the Commission’s move, critics of the framework presented today object the vagueness of many points mentioned in the paper. In a joint release six renowned European airspace user associations blame Mrs Bulc and her team to have stopped short of proposing precise measures to achieve the set targets. In an initial reaction to the EU Commission’s presentation Frankfurt Airport Chief and Board member of the German Transport Forum, Stefan Schulte said: “EU airlines and airports are losing market shares in a global comparison as result of unfair competition.” He went on to say that bureaucratic obstacles set by EU member states, not by any non-EU carrier, national aviation taxes, the resistance by some governments to implement a Single European Sky and other political hurdles degrading the aviation landscape within the union must be overcome at once.
In other words, the EU members should first organize their own affairs before holding others responsible for their woes. “We share the assessment of the European Commission that the EU needs a new strategic approach in aviation. It is all about value creation, jobs and securing future opportunities.” However, the question of when, under which circumstances, and by what means this all shall be achieved, the Commission lacks any answers, Schulte went on to say. “This must be firmed up now very quickly,” demanded the Fraport boss.

Immediate action or endless debate?
It is our opinion that if this issue is now again to be bandied around within the EU politicians, then it’s not going to get anywhere in the next 10 years or so.
By then it will be too late to change anything and the real question arises whether politicians should be the deciding factor in such an important debate.
Would it not be more beneficial all round if somehow carriers and their advisors started to look at the fact that competition has been here for years, won’t go away and can only (fairly) be combated by EU carriers, who carry a lot of internal deadwood with them, start motivating their staff to come up with innovative ideas to at least “stay on par” to their competitors.
Looks like Violeta and her crew still have some homework to do.

Heiner Siegmund / John Mc Donagh

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