The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökul volcano on 20 March 2010 demonstrated the weaknesses in Europe’s diverse air traffic control network. As a massive ash cloud up to 8 kilometres high gradually extended across western Europe, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights and stranding millions of passengers across the entire continent. Although European air controllers correctly prioritised passenger safety above all other factors, the scenario left many airline industry commentators and journalists frustrated with the European Union’s apparent inability to swiftly and effectively act on changing meteorological and airline information. With few exceptions, the maintenance of separate airspace quadrants by each EU member, each with different processes, response mechanisms, as well as external pressures from airlines and politicians, all contributed to delayed and even contradictory responses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Oslo.
In Eyjafjallajökull’s wake, the International Aviation Transportation Authority (IATA), in cooperation with the EU, proposed the establishment a single European air zone, divided into nine ‘functional airspace blocks’. Citing the current system’s woefully inefficiency – e.g., ‘With fewer air traffic controllers the United States FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] is able to deliver 70% more controlled flight hours than Europe]’ – the IATA / EU consortium called for a reorganisation, or ‘rationalisation’ of air traffic control hierarchies, technological modernisation, and substantially better (and more transparent) communication between national aviation authorities. Optimistically entitled ‘Single European Sky’ (SES), officials set a date of 4 December 2012 for its implementation.
But, as Dr Christopher Lawless (Durham University) reminds us in his March 2014 Geographical Journal commentary, 4 December 2012 came and went with little change. Only two of the nine blocks – Denmark-Sweden and UK-Ireland – had reached operational status. National-level aviation oversight bodies – intended to be the vanguard of transnational cooperation – had made little progress in communicating or facilitating with their neighbouring counterparts. Bickering, unsurprisingly, had early on replaced collaboration. At the EU Aviation Summit in Limassol, Cyprus, Siim Kallas, European Commission joint Vice President and Transport Commissioner, attacked EU states for ‘their “undue protection of national interests’” (Lawless p. 76).
Of the seven non-operational airspace blocks, two (Iberian Peninsula and Central Mediterranean) had not even progressed beyond the ‘definition stage’ (p. 77). Fearing the loss of their jobs and the complete overhaul of learned ATC procedures, French and German air traffic controllers repeatedly threatened strikes.
Lawless examined SES’s problematic history through Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim’s 2009 paradigm of ‘sociotechnical imaginary’. The European SES programme sought to mix technological requirements with larger political aspirations, inevitably leading to discord between various member states. Airlines, already struggling to break even financially, balked at restructuring costs (p.80). Spatially, air spaces were eventually designed along largely existing geographical and geopolitical lines, as the UK-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden, and Italy-Mediterranean sectors clearly demonstrate (p. 78). In reality, these geopolitically-influenced air spaces make little sense with the traffic patterns of most passenger flights:
[T]he highest density region of European air traffic…spans a corridor encompassing the airspace of the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Under the current arrangement, this straddles four separate FABs…(p. 78).
Lawless concludes by calling for a comprehensive inquiry into sovereign states’ concerns, risk assessments, and considerations, and re-drawing the air space landscape in a more logical (and less state-specific) manner. Ultimately, he stressed that even such ‘apolitical’ projects as SES are unfortunately ridden with politics, negotiation, and self-interests.
The SES debate will continue to fascinate observers for some time. Agonising, protracted discussions over the future of London’s airspace – the world’s busiest – between Conservative officials, led by Boris Johnson, and Labour opponents seem unlikely to end amicably, or soon. This regional crisis, combined with Britain’s current national debate over its long-term role within the EU, will only further complicate the SES’s possible re-development and implementation.
Gertisser R, Eyjafjallajökull volcano causes widepread disruption to European air traffic, Geology Today 26.3 (May-Jun.: 2010), 94-95.
Lawless C, Commentary: Bounding the vision of a Single European Sky, The Geographical Journal, 180.1 (Mar., 2014): 76-82.
Sacks B, Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder, Geography Directions, 18 February 2011.
Q&A: EU response to Iceland volcano ash, BBC News, 25 May 2011.
Iceland volcano ash: German air traffic resuming, BBC News, 25 May 2011.
Hofmann K, French, German ATCs postpone strikes over Single European Sky, Air Transport World, 24 January 2014.