The Icelandic Volcano May Also Have Some Positive Consequences

Tuesday 4, May 2010


The Icelandic Volcano May Also Have Some Positive Consequences


The collapse of European air transport following the eruption of the volcano in Iceland appears to have lent urgency to plans to create the Single European Sky. Many people have acknowledged that if it had already been in place the decisions that were necessitated by this incident would have been taken more rapidly.



The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed its displeasure with governments for closing European airspace. Its General director, Giovanni Bisignani, said "the situation was made worse by a poor decision‐making process on the part of national governments, and the shutdown cost the industry hundreds of millions in lost revenue".


A Europe without air frontiers is a demand which has been made by Europe's airlines for a long time, and the damage caused by the volcano may speed the attainment of this goal.


Seventeen years after the creation of the Single Market, which erased terrestrial borders to free the movement of goods, services, people, and capital, it is paradoxical and even absurd that European air space should remain so fragmented with 27 "national air spaces", belonging to the 27 member states, and that most of them have more than one area control centre.


The Single European Sky would reduce to 9 the more than 60 current area control centres

The achievement of a Single European Sky has become crucial to the future of European aviation and 2012 will be the key year for bringing it about. In that year the 60 current area control centres are to be reduced to nine. This simplification, along with the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) initiation, its technological arm, is aimed at cutting the cost of flights by half, reducing environmental impacts by 10% by a better use of airspace to lessen carbon emissions, and tripling capacity while maintaining today's high levels of safety.


The advantages of a Single Sky are beyond question, and meetings aimed at advancing towards this goal are increasingly frequent. The latest high level meeting took place in Madrid on February 26th, and involved representatives of the more than 36 airlines belonging to the European Airlines Association (AEA). In the meeting, Iberia's chairman, Antonio Vázquez, made it clear that while the current economic crisis persists, the airlines can simply not afford to bear unnecessary costs and inefficiencies, which must be eradicated for the air transport value chain. And the current fragmentation of European air space translates into additional costs to the airlines of some 4,400 million euros each year.


How to Organise Europe's Skies

European air space is now divided into 27 blocks, which are further divided into more than 60 area control centres. Roughly speaking, this means that whenever an aircraft moves from one to another the pilot must change radio frequencies and contact the next traffic controller. In addition, the routes between blocks, and even between area control centres, do not run in straight lines, but are serpentine. For instance, a flight from Rome to Brussels crosses nine different blocks of air space, whose control centres and managed by a variety of criteria and use diverse technologies. And furthermore there are numerous military zones which civil aviation traffic is not allowed to enter. All this amounts to a terrific tangle which makes cross‐border European flights about 15% less efficient than domestic ones.


This situation is a legacy of the First World War and the drawing of air borders at the Paris Air Traffic Convention in 1919. Each country was assigned the protection and air traffic control of its own skies.


Since then, each country has pursued the policies that were in keeping with its interests, and the result is a lack of coordination whose consequences were exacerbated by the deregulation of air transport, and led to a considerable increase in flight delays.


The first steps towards improving international air traffic were taken in 1944 at the Convention on International Civil Aviation in Chicago, where bilateral and even some multilateral agreements were reached. However, it was not until the 1990s that the process was launched that would lead to the first legislative package and the beginning of the SESAR initiative –in which Iberia played a very active part– aimed at a thorough modernisation of current management systems to ensure the efficiency of the Single Sky. Under the current system, aircraft must not only pass through the different control areas, but also adapt to the different radio frequencies they use, which adds another major level of difficulty. In principle this system is to be replaced by one in which radio communication between traffic controllers is handled by a more advanced technological system, and also uses different procedures.


A second package of legislation was introduced in 2009, and the latest meetings have pushed harder for the achievement of the Single European Sky. The definition of the new units in which the blocks of air space will be established is to be completed in 2012. This is a major step forward which will be followed by others such as the lowering of the costs of air traffic control service providers and the raising of their efficiency.



  1. United Kingdom and Ireland
  2. Spain and Portugal
  3. Lithuania and Poland
  4. *Denmark and Sweden
  5. Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia
  6. Bulgaria and Rumania
  7. Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, and Switzerland
  8. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta, Albania, Egypt. and Tunisia
  9. *Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden

*Part of Denmark's airspace is over Germany, and the part corresponding to Greenland is in another block



Daily flights: 28,000

Aircraft used to make them: 4,700

Airports: 130

Average distance travelled: 826 km



  • U.S. airspace covers 9.8 million square kilometres, as compared to Europe's 10.5 million.
  • A single body manages all civil and military air traffic in the USA, while in Europe there are 47.
  • In the USA there are 21 air traffic control centres, and in Europe there are 58.
  • A single operating system is used in U.S. air traffic control, while 22 are used in Europe.
  • In the USA each controller handles up to 900 movements, as compared to 480 in Europe.
  • In the USA the ATM cost per flight is 400 USD, which is about half the cost in Europe.




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