Single European Sky

The Single European Sky (SES) initiative was launched in 2004 [1]  to reduce the fragmentation of European airspace and to improve the performance of Air Traffic Management (ATM) in terms of safety, capacity, cost- efficiency and the environment. The number of flights to or from EU27+EFTA airports during 2019 was 9.25 million, which led to congestion, re-routings, delays and above all significant excess CO2 emissions. While this dropped sharply in 2020 (-55%) and in 2021 (-45%) due to the COVID pandemic, air traffic is expected to ultimately return to 2019 levels and these issues will reappear unless action is taken.

Achieving the goal of climate neutrality by 2050 calls for the EU to ensure decarbonisation of the air transport sector. This ambitious target cannot be achieved without an ATM system that supports and incentivises air navigation service providers, airport operators and aircraft users to optimize the efficiency of their operations and thus reduce excess fuel burn and emissions to a minimum. The European ATM Master Plan [2]  currently includes a goal to reduce average CO2 emission per flight by 5-10% (0.8-1.6 tonnes) by 2035, compared to 2012.

In September 2020, the European Commission proposed a reform of the SES to improve ATM and to support the ambitions of the European Green Deal. The aim is to modernise airspace management and air navigation services in order to increase the system’s ability to adapt to variations in traffic and reduce aviation’s carbon footprint, whilst maintaining or improving levels of safety, increasing capacity and improving cost-efficiency.

Part of this proposal is the possibility to introduce a common unit rate across the entire SES area. This would replace the current system where unit rates vary strongly between charging zones thereby providing airspace users with an adverse incentive to fly routes with the lowest charges at the cost of potentially higher CO2 emissions. In order to make sure that the scheme does not affect the revenues of the air navigation service providers, the proceeds from the air navigation charges would need to be reallocated. The proposal also requires the modulation of air navigation charges that rewards aircraft operators with the best environmental performance and penalizes the worst performers, while being overall revenue neutral for air traffic service providers.

It is also recognised that the current SES environmental Key Performance Indicator has serious limitations (see section 5.2), and the possibilities of the current SES regulatory framework have not been fully exploited, including the option for EU Member States to introduce local environmental incentive schemes. Hence, there is a need to strengthen the regulatory framework and to develop more appropriate indicators and incentives for the fourth Reference Period (RP4).

As of mid-2022, the European Parliament and the Council are still discussing the SES reform proposals.

The Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2019/709 of 6th May 2019 [4]  renewed the appointment of EUROCONTROL as Network Manager (NM) for the period 2020-2029. Following the revised ATM Network Functions Regulation [3]  in 2019, EASA continues to act as the competent authority that certifies and oversees the NM. The role of the NM is to coordinate operational stakeholders in order to manage demand through flow and capacity management, and thereby optimise the performance of the European aviation network to limit unnecessary fuel burn and emissions.

SESAR [5]  is the technological pillar of the SES framework. It defines, develops and deploys technologies to transform air traffic management in Europe, as defined in the European ATM Master Plan. The innovative technological and operational solutions needed to deliver the ‘Digital European Sky’, and the associated environmental benefits, are developed and validated by the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking, after which they are deployed locally, or in a synchronized manner at the European level by the SESAR Deployment Manager in coordination with all relevant stakeholders.

The SES Performance Scheme [6]  defines Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) with mandatory local and EU targets that cover the fields of environment, safety, cost efficiency and capacity. Following Brexit, the geographical scope of the SES Performance Scheme was changed, and the UK is no longer subject to the performance scheme in RP3 (2020-2024).

The scheme aims to capture the relationship between flight routing and environmental impacts, and the KPIs have been regarded as reasonable proxy measures of Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) efficiency that can be used to incentivise improved performance over time. The pandemic has challenged this assumption with relatively small improvements in the environmental KPI despite a dramatic reduction in traffic (see Sections 5.2 and 5.3).