Volcanic ash clouds, crisis and progress: why the Single European Sky will not be built in a day

Air traffic in Europe in 24h

Following the massive disruption of air traffic in Europe last week, caused by a volcanic ash cloud, I was happily surprised  to see so many newspapers and politicians put the Single European Sky  on the table.

And my first thought was: why does it always take a crisis for things to move ahead faster and get done? And will that actually be the case with European skies?

A single sky for a single Europe

The linkage between crisis/war and progress has been already largely documented, and I’ll assume that it’s a given here (see WWI and women’s rights, WWII and technologies such as radar, jet engines, etc.). So let’s get back to our volcanic ash cloud.

To put it simply, the Single European Sky (SES) initiative aims at creating a seamless European air traffic management system abolishing national boundaries as far as civil air traffic control is concerned. To a certain extent it can be compared to the European single market initiative which brought about free movement of goods and people within the European Union.

The idea of a single sky was launched in the late 1990s by the European Commission. And ten years later, we’re still not seeing it come alive, although progress has been made in developing a regulatory framework, technological advances and a new organisation of European airspace that will help make it a reality.

Time isn’t on our side

The massive 1-week closure of European airspace has highlighted the limits of national decisions when it comes to air transport, and thus the need for a unified approach as advocated by supporters of the Single European Sky.

It can be expected that the single sky initiative will gather new momentum following the volcanic ash crisis, and that EU Member States will feel the pressure, more than ever, to move ahead in this direction.

But these things do take time, just like it took 35 years to move from the first European customs union in 1968 to the full realisation of the EU Single Market in 1993.

The main issue will probably now be to overcome the discrepancies between an air transport industry that is now globalised and the EU-27 which can officially only exert political pressure on its Member States, while the issue of a single sky for Europe is a continental issue at the least.

I’d be interested in having your views on the probable timeframe for the realisation of the single European sky, and whether you think the volcanic ash crisis will make a difference time-wise.

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