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French air controllers turbulent as Europe’s skies merge

Published on 24/02/2010

Brussels – Striking French air traffic controllers are unhappy at moves towards a "Single European Sky" with a pan-European system designed to improve both efficiency and safety.

Currently the European Union’s air space is a patchwork of 27 air traffic control systems, subdivided into 250 "sectors".

As a pilot enters each new sector he must change radio wave frequency and contact the next air traffic control team.

"Each country operates a system which is optimal for traffic in its territory, but the air controllers seldom know whether a plane can overfly a military zone on the other side of the border or if the arrival airport is saturated," a source close to the issue in Brussels explained.

The idea of the European Air Traffic Management Master Plan is a "single European sky" where a network is set up providing all the relevant information to neighbours and beyond.

Flights could thus take the shortest possible routes, with a bonus for the environment, while "not essentially changing the daily work of an air traffic controller," the aviation source said.

However French unions warn of "social consequences" for the 4,400 public sector controllers of the flight paths in France.

Currently international flights are 15 percent less efficient than national routes. Therefore an average trip from Amsterdam to Milan will fly an extra 155 kilometres due to military zones, noise restrictions and circling above airports waiting for a landing slot.

On top of that airlines are taxed on the distance they travel within national airspace, another reason for a reticence to change the system.

The European Union’s 2009 single sky legislation calls for "Functional Airspace Blocks" to be in place by 2012, creating "boundary-less airspace".

France would become part of the Central Europe block, along with Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This zone is one of the busiest in the world in terms of air traffic.

A longer-term plan is to replace air traffic control technology, some of it dating back to World War II for a new generation pan-European system SESAR (Single European Sky Air traffic management Research).

Brussels estimates that better coordination of European air traffic could slice an average 8-14 minutes off flight times, while using 7-11 percent less fuel and emitting 10 percent less carbon dioxide.

AFP / Expatica