Editorial: From Fire-Fighting to Future-Proofing

Olivier JankovecBy Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI EUROPE

With passenger traffic figures showing a stronger and more dynamic recovery, the early months of 2011 finally delivered the positive signals that most of Europe’s airports had been waiting for all through 2010.

However, despite much improved consumer confidence and businesses enjoying strong demand from new economic powerhouses in Asia and South America, the short-term outlook for European aviation still remains uncertain. As I write these lines, one can only speculate over the outcome and global impact of the dramatic events that have brought Japan – the world’s 3rd largest economy – to a stand still. Renewed volatility in oil prices continues to be a major concern, on the back of geo-political instability in North Africa and the Middle East. Last but not least, Europe’s ability to decisively step away from sovereign debt crises and boost domestic demand will also be key factors shaping our business in the coming months.

For reassuring and brighter prospects, looking at a more distant future seems to be a safer bet. The Long-Term Air Traffic Forecast released by EUROCONTROL in February is indeed comforting when it comes to future demand for air transport. This authoritative report shows that, despite losing 3 years of growth with the global crisis, air traffic in Europe is still expected to – nearly – double by 2030. However, the good news ends there, as taking into account existing plans to develop airport facilities and the fact that High Speed Rail will only absorb a fraction (0.5%) of demand for air transport, the report also confirms previous findings: Europe continues to face an airport capacity crunch.

This EUROCONTROL report should be a wake-up call for European governments. In several countries, the level of support for airport expansion is at an all-time low – in sharp contrast to what happens elsewhere in the world, in particular in the Middle East, China and India. As getting our licence to grow has never been more difficult, the award for the worst aviation policy (or non-policy as it happens) undoubtedly goes to the United Kingdom. Across the Channel, it is all about ignoring the pressing needs of businesses and citizens for efficient mobility by denying badly needed airport expansion. Coupled with the highest level of aviation tax on record, the UK government is actively jeopardising the competitive position of UK plc.

Airports are prime assets when it comes to fostering economic growth and reinforcing social cohesion. But to make the most of our potential, we need policies that are truly focused on the long-term and which ensure that general interests prevail over vested ones. These are essential principles – and not just when looking at capacity planning. They should also guide national authorities at a time when they need to finalise the implementation of the EU Directive on airport charges.

The EUROCONTROL report is also a reminder for the European Commission that airport capacity needs to be addressed more forcefully at EU level. The impact of the capacity crunch will be felt throughout the European aviation network, well beyond national borders. It directly threatens the success of the Single European Sky – a top priority for the EU transport policy. Increasing capacity in the air will be utterly pointless without matching capacity on the ground, and that is why there is an urgent need to align ATM and airport capacity objectives.

ACI EUROPE has been working tirelessly in that direction since 2007, as part of a more effective integration of airports into the ATM network. As reported in this publication, the ‘Budapest Charter’ concluding the recent EU Conference on Single European Sky pays recognition to the challenge of airport capacity and paves the way for more decisive action at European level. Yet, concrete follow-up rests with the European Commission.

This will require much more than simply proposing an EU regulation to standardise airport capacity measurements – a weak and futile move. It will require a better understanding of ground operations, including the recognition of limits inherent to capacity constraints and the need to address our lack of control over the various activities taking place within the airport perimeter. Indeed, with a better understanding, we could have avoided some rather prejudiced and unjustified statements during the extreme winter conditions of last December.

Most of all, resolving the airport capacity crunch will require courage and leadership that tends to be sorely lacking at national level. This means the European Commission must be visionary and show lasting commitment. Its forthcoming White Paper on the Future of Transport, due to be adopted in the coming days, should be the opportunity to start showcasing vision.

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