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The sky’s the limit

Most of us are probably more interested in the in-flight entertainment than we are in air traffic control – but with the prospect of spending more time taxiing at the airport than actually flying, you might want to reconsider… so the EU is taking action!

The sky’s the limit

For those of us booked on upcoming flights, news coverage of severe storms or industrial action is enough to make us break into a cold sweat. But away from the headlines there is another problem that is threatening to bring permanent delays – not to mention increased costs and pollution – to the EU’s increasingly congested airspace: Europe’s complicated air traffic control system.

A joint European undertaking called SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) involving airport operators, technology companies and national authorities has been set up to help develop a new air traffic control system that is fit for the 21st century. Some of the main issues being addressed include:

Old technology

In an era in which some airlines now offer passengers wireless internet connections for their mobile devices, it may surprise you to know that pilots still communicate with air traffic controllers using old radio technology.


European airspace is divided into a patchwork of national air navigation providers with more than 650 different sectors. Pilots have to change radio frequency and contact the next air traffic controller each time their plane enters a new sector. The inefficiencies caused by Europe's fragmented airspace bring extra costs of around €5 (£4.25) billion a year. These costs get passed on to business and passengers. Air traffic control currently makes up 6-12% of the cost of a ticket.. In the US for example, where airspace is not fragmented in this way, air traffic controllers manage twice as many flights at the same cost.

A single European sky

With 28,000 flights a day (or a staggering 10 million a year), the EU’s skies are close to reaching the maximum capacity that can be safely controlled under Europe’s current air traffic control system. But with the number of flights expected to grow steadily over the next ten years, delays, increased emissions, greater costs and greater safety risks are almost inevitable unless something is changed.

With SESAR and the Single European Sky project, work is underway to modernise and defragment Europe’s air traffic control system. As a result:

  • Safety will be improved by a factor of 10
  • Air traffic control costs will decrease by 50%
  • The environmental impact will fall by 10% (routes will be more direct, less taxiing,
    etc.) per flight
  • There will be a three-fold increase in capacity by 2020
  • There will be better punctuality, more routes and greater competition
  • Investment in European technology will secure European jobs

The Single European Sky will make flying more environmentally-friendly, yet it will also allow more flights through our airspace. Is this a contradiction? What implications will it have on your personal choices?

Did you know?
Due to airspace fragmentation, planes don’t actually fly in a straight line between airports. In fact, the average flight flies 42km longer than strictly necessary, adding time to journeys and pumping out an additional 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

To find out more: