Although the European Union has stepped up safety rules for the air transport sector in recent years, the bloc is still dogged by a lack of coordination and sometimes patchy application of existing regulations.
EU skies must become safer, officials say
A recent string of crashes claiming the lives of EU citizens has refocused attention on measures to improve European air safety, including a possible blacklist of airlines.
In the latest incident, a Colombian airplane crashed in Venezuela on Tuesday, killing all 160 people on board, including 152 French passengers. The disaster came only days after a Cypriot airplane hit a hillside near Athens, taking the lives of 121 passengers, most of whom were Cypriots.
Earlier this month a Tunisian-operated charter plane crash landed at sea off the Sicilian coast killing 13 people, including 12 Italians.
In reaction to the crash in Venezuela, EU transportation officials have called for tougher safety measures.
"This accident … shows that we must collectively step up efforts to ensure the highest level of air transport security in Europe and shelter all of the (European) Union's passengers and crew from such dramas," said EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot.
Beefing up checks
In January 2004, the crash in Egypt of a Boeing airliner operated by Flash Airlines, which killed 148 people, spurred the EU into action after years of negotiations and led to a beefing-up of safety checks on non-EU airplanes at airports in member states.
The transport commissioner at the time, Loyola de Palacio, was quick to say that the Flash Airlines accident probably would never have happened had the rules been in place before the crash.
Recent air disasters are spurring a new look at air safety
In 1994, the EU made it a requirement after air accidents that a technical probe be carried out by a body independent of the national civil aviation authorities.
But like many EU rules, this one has not always been followed by all member states. In July, the European Commission scolded Cyprus for not having adopted the regulation when it joined the bloc on May 1 of last year.
On Tuesday, Transport Commissioner Barrot called for more monitoring: "The European Commission will strictly watch over the full application of existing measures and (those) under preparation to ensure ... the security of all European flights, including from third countries at departure or to destinations in member states."
The commissioner aims to extend in the coming months the responsibilities of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which currently issues airworthiness certificates for aeronautical products, parts and equipment.
In particular, Barrot wants to see the EASA play a greater role in monitoring flight safety and the security of non-EU airlines, and in certifying crew members.
Before the crash in Venezuela
Keeping passengers in the loop
Plans for regulations on keeping passengers informed about flights are also in the works.
Ahead of a first reading of the regulations by the European Parliament, EU members agreed in principle in April that passengers be informed as soon as possible and, in any case, before take-off of changes in the airline operating a flight.
The new rules also propose improved information exchange about grounded airlines, although Belgium, France, Germany and Spain want more coordination on the criteria used to designate such carriers.
A 2004 regulation on the safety of airplanes from non-EU members, which members have until May 2006 to adopt into their national legislation, opens the way for an EU-wide flight ban if such a ban has been declared by a single member state.
However, an extension of the regulation would have to be proposed by the European Commission and backed by a qualified majority of member states, which tend to jealously hold on to their authority to authorize flights.
The lack of EU-wide coordination sparked chaos in May when thousands of passengers were left stranded after a ban on Turkish carrier Onur Air -- by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- until their flights were finally rerouted via Belgium.
The European Commission is considering publishing a blacklist of airlines and aircraft subject to bans or restrictions in EU member states on the Internet, Barrot said Wednesday.
The European Union blacklist idea is similar to a mechanism already operational in the United States, where would-be passengers can consult a website publishing the names of airlines with relatively poor safety records.
"We hope that with the information that will be communicated to the Commission we will be able to publish a sort of blacklist," Barrot said, adding that the proposal could become reality by the end of the year if it is passed by the European Parliament.