by Thomas Reynaert, Managing Director, A4E

It is fair to say that this summer’s exceptionally warm weather may have been good for tourism, but probably not for policy-making – when the EU institutions’ history of “non-exertion” reaches its peak during the summer recess. The truth is, the EU institutions were facing a lame duck scenario of inactivity long before things heated up in Brussels. New or renewed initiatives (as part of the widely-pronounced EC Aviation Strategy) which could make a difference in strengthening the single European aviation market have been largely “missing in action” the last months. That said, there is still a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

As policy-makers in Brussels revisit their to-do lists towards the end of their mandate next year, one can imagine it becomes even more difficult to tick off the issues they had hoped to get to. It is rather unfortunate, to say the least, that in these times neither politicians nor policy-makers have the capability to do a little bit more than what they are required to. This sometimes means finding the courage to deal with certain issues that have been on the agenda for a very long time, and not to simply brush them off their desks.

Take, for example, the lack of progress made by previous EU Council Presidencies on improving air passenger rights (Regulation EU 261). For years, A4E has called on Member States to make the air passenger rights rules clearer and easier to apply. The revision of Regulation 261 is extremely important for more legal certainty and to ensure a fair balance of both consumer and industry interests.

Now, earlier this year, in its Proposal for a review of the Injunctions Directive – an effort aimed at strengthening the collective interests of consumers across the EU – (and a consequence of Dieselgate), the EC proposed to include air travel in its list of sectors which should face the possibility of collective redress.

However, a recent survey from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform showed that without critical consumer safeguards, the proposal could turn the EU into a global hub for abusive litigation that would be just as bad as, or even worse than the U.S. system! The EC itself, not long ago, considered the combination of punitive damages, contingency fees and opt-outs, as seen in the U.S., a “toxic cocktail” to be avoided in Europe. As long as national governments do not manage to make progress on a review of passenger rights, at the end of the day, it is the passenger who will continue to suffer.

Looking ahead, the airline industry continues to face mounting competitive pressure. Real competition means cost pressure, at least if you want to survive. More importantly, airlines have to provide a service to passengers – a concept some of the non-airline aviation stakeholders are seemingly unfamiliar with, simply because, until recently, they did not have to care about them.

The current Austrian EU Presidency stated one of its objectives for the next six months was, “Moving towards sustainable, fair, competitive and safe transport systems”. With a flourishing aviation market back home, the Austrians could and should take the lead in pushing critical aviation files that would directly improve the internal competitiveness of the sector and the well-being of travellers. Unfortunately, like so many EU Presidencies before it, aviation does not appear to have made the to-do list of their mandate.

Here’s what I think SHOULD be on their list:

  • Resume negotiations in the Council to review the passenger rights’ Regulation (EU261)
  • Reduce the impact of air traffic control (ATC) strikes: In 2018, ATC strikes across Europe disrupted travel plans for millions of passengers, not to mention the financial toll they have taken on EU airlines. (Watch our recent ATC strikes film if you’re not up to speed).
  • Improve Europe’s air traffic management (ATM): In July, a month without ATC strikes, the average ATM delay per flight increased by almost 15% compared to June. In fact, around 55% of the delays were ATC related while “only” around 23% were due to bad weather.

The projected surge in European air traffic and subsequent forecasts are nothing new. Yet whether it is due to the lack of investment in new technologies or insufficient ATC staffing levels, the problems continue to get worse. In July, EU Commissioner Violeta Bulc and European Parliament Transport & Tourism Committee Chair Karima Delli called on the Member States and key aviation stakeholders to help move the latest Single European Sky proposals forward in order to prevent further air traffic capacity issues.

Here’s an excerpt from their joint statement:

2018 is expected to be the busiest year so far in terms of air traffic, with 11 million flights forecast. On top of that the summer holiday season is upon us, which is the busiest period for air travel. The bleak reality is that around 50,000 passengers will face delays – every day – of up to 2 hours in airports across Europe, leading to missed connections and unforeseen costs. [1] Our current air traffic system is struggling to cope with the ever increasing volume of traffic, and other disruptions which contribute to these delays. The system needs an urgent upgrade. Now is the moment to be bold – we need a more genuine cooperation between national air navigation service providers, and we need to work with Eurocontrol to create a more effective management of the European network.

Let’s be clear: A4E fully supports this initiative. The main question now is whether or not it will finally be dealt with before the next heat wave arrives in Brussels.

[1] Study by Eurocontrol: European Aviation in 2040 – Challenges of Growth