Skies in Europe are crowded, inefficient and expensive, says the EU Commission. The Single European Sky plan has been trying to change that. Air traffic controllers and Russia are still a thorny issue.
With 27 member states, the EU's airspace is highly fragmented. On average, a plane zig-zags 49 extra kilometers (30 miles) per flight. Where the US has 22 en-route air navigation service providers, Europe has more than 60. That wastes fuel, affects the environment and increases prices. The US, at about half the cost, runs a similar-sized airspace.
Sorting out Europe's antiquated system of air traffic control is a matter of urgency, says Andrew Charlton, the founder and CEO of Aviation Advocacy. Air traffic, he told DW, is expected to double by 2030, which means extra demand that will stretch traffic management resources thinner than they already are - both in the air and on the ground.
"I would like to see the air traffic control system modernized. I would like to see it brought out of 1955 to... what about 2005? That would be good. 2015 would be even smarter. It's the change from horse-drawn carriage to motorcars."
Despite years of setbacks, the European Commission is now pushing ahead with plans to unify Europe's airspace.
Single European Sky
"What we call the Single European Sky is the plan to create one, much more efficiently run European air traffic management system," said the spokesperson for the European Commission Transport and Mobility department, Helen Kearns, in an interview with DW.
At the moment, 27 national traffic control systems divided into 650 sections manage 27,000 flights over Europe per day.
"We are trying to create nine big regional blocks, where you'll have shared airspace and the flights will flow much more directly - and the costs will come down," Kearns said. "It's a big slow project - it's 10 years on now - and it's struggling to deliver the efficiencies it should."
Andrew Charlton agrees. After years of wrangling over the impact of the plan, only a handful of European states have actively embraced the idea, he said. Opposition from Europe's army of air traffic controllers, many fearful of job losses and closures, makes this task even harder.
"There will be short-term industrial issues, but, properly explained and properly managed, we can make that change positive for everyone," Charlton said.
Another headache for EU officials is the subject of Russian overflight fees. EU airlines passing through Siberian airspace on non-stop flights to Asia have to pay royalties to Russia. Those fees were introduced in Soviet times and have been paid in recent years to the state-controlled carrier, Aeroflot.
Analysts estimate that overflight royalties amount to up to 300 million euros ($387 million) per year. Despite years of negotiations between Brussels and Moscow, the issue is still not resolved.
"There is an agreement between the Russians and the European Union, and we are certainly hoping that the Russians will comply with this," said Athar Husain Khan, the acting secretary general of the Association of European Airlines, in an interview with DW.
Khan's optimism is shared by few. The fees were meant to have been phased out last year when Russia joined the World Trade Organization, but Moscow stunned Brussels by stepping back from that commitment at the last minute. Moscow was accused of having used overflight fees as a bargaining chip in the country's opposition to the controversial EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Under that plan, Russian carriers would have had to pay more for emissions rights.
"They suddenly started to talk about linkage between the ETS and agreed principals, referring to overflights. It's not correct," said Siim Kallas, the European Commission's Vice-president and EU Transport Commissioner, in an interview with DW. "I have expressed my dissatisfaction on all occasions. After that, we more or less severed all contact."
Kallas added, however, that he would talk to his counterparts when the European Commission meets with the Russian government on March 21. "My message is that [emissions fees and overflight charges] cannot be linked. And they must implement these agreed principals."
Fixing relations with Russia and the SES is a top aviation priority - and too important to be allowed to fail, Kallas said. But he is under no illusions.
While many agree that dragging an air traffic control system designed after the Second World War into the 21st century would provide huge financial and environmental benefits, Kallas expects that may take years before passengers see a change in EU skies.