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Updated SES Regulation Key for a Sustainable Restart in Aviation

By  Brussels,

The Single European Sky (SES) and Destination 2050 (D2050), EU aviation’s net zero decarbonisation roadmap, share a joint focus on environmental improvements. But whereas the idea of a single European Sky has been discussed for more than 20 years, Destination 2050, with its plan to realise net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, has literally just begun. D2050 builds on the SES framework, for a conservative 7% emissions reduction estimate compared to 2018. Hence this legal framework must enable the development and implementation of technology solutions (e.g., SESAR solutions) which have a clear focus on airspace efficiency and in turn, environmental benefits.

Despite both the SES recast and D2050 launching in the midst of a global pandemic, causing the worst crisis to affect aviation in modern times — this should not stop us from doing the right thing and continuing to prepare for the future – when we can all enjoy free movement again. Today’s situation needs to be seen as an opportunity for both industry and politicians to join forces and build aviation back better. This begins with an updated SES regulation.

Let’s take a step back in time, first. Since 2004, a wealth of SESARThe Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) project was launched in 2004 as the technological pillar of the Single European Sky (SES) solutions (both technical and operational) have been developed and to some extent implemented, enabled by the existing SES regulatory framework. Unfortunately, today  we are simply not where we should be: I joined this arena at the start of the millennium, and expected things to be finished in 20 – latest 25 years. Meanwhile, reality set in. National plans – not to mention national egoisms, sovereignty considerations, military concerns and political plays have all prevented a coordinated, harmonised and effective implementation of the ATM Masterplan. As a result, airspace efficiency and resulting environmental benefits have missed the SES target of up to 10% by a wide margin.

Why an updated SES Regulation is relevant for aviation’s decarbonisation ambitions

Inconsistencies in the existing regulatory framework were used to satisfy individual interests and not always with a positive impact. Consequently, an updated SES regulatory framework needs to account for the following now:

  • A political climate fostering cooperation between states to implement the existing solutions, for the benefit of an efficient airspace and ATM system – helping to reduce the environmental footprint of the aviation industry;
  • An overarching, inclusive governance structure ensuring that airlines/airspace users and the other operational stakeholder can build consolidated industry positions to guide all major decisions;
  • A regulatory framework ready for new business models and the unbundling of services where it is cost efficient or otherwise beneficial – and not only for the logical idea of an ATM Data Service Provider (ADSP);
  • An economic regulation ensuring that any monopolistic part of the single aviation market is emulating competitive conditions as much as possible as well as avoiding instruments that could represent a competitive disadvantage for European airlines/airspace users;
  • A Network Management which is based on airline/airspace user demand and facilitates a cooperative and inclusive decision- making process.

In terms of decarbonisation, the D2050 roadmap shows how ATM and aircraft operation improvements could result in a conservative CO2 savings of 7% compared to 2018. This is lower than the up to 10% mentioned for the SES – but this target was set a decade ago and, despite all odds, some achievements have been made.

Today, we have most of the technology available and digitalisation is taking up speed providing new opportunities as we speak. Nevertheless, coordinated implementation of the technology is lacking. A new spirit created by an updated SES framework could actually foster progress instead of just visions.

This is how the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission can have a direct impact on aviation fuel burn and reducing emissions, respectively — without extensive development times or prohibitive costs attached to it.


With attention currently focussed on the restart of travel and dire situation most airlines are facing, it is of utmost importance not to “waste a good crisis” and intensify implementation activities linked to existing SESAR solutions and the recommendations made in the European Commission’s Airspace Architecture Study as soon as possible. These activities will not only reduce the operational cost burden of airlines/airspace users but will also reduce emissions in absolute terms (including NOx and particulates). These solutions are a quick and cost-efficient way to reduce fuel burn.

We also need a forward- thinking approach to an updated SES Regulation, one which is useable when the Single European Sky becomes a reality. For this to happen, the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission need to focus on a common goal – an environmentally minded and sustainable aviation industry supported by an efficient and functional ATM system. Political agendas – for once, need to be pushed to the sidelines!

If this can be done, the future looks bright with aviation’s D2050 initiative – but let’s not wait another 20 or 30 years to realise these improvements. The time is now to future-proof Europe’s skies. Even in the midst of our worst crisis, this is our opportunity.