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European air-traffic rules add to flight times and fuel bills

Shay Warren, deputy director of flight operations at Ryanair Holdings Plc, traced two routes from Dublin to Malmoe, Sweden, on a computerized map. The direct route is 693 nautical miles. Then there's the Ryanair route – a roundabout, 814-mile path to avoid UK military airspace. Such no-go zones, along with the fragmented civilian air-traffic system that goes with them, make Europe's airspace an obstacle course for commercial carriers such as Dublin-based Ryanair, the continent's biggest low-cost carrier. „Huge swathes of airspace in Europe are closed off,” Warren said. „It's costing us time, money and emissions.” Airspace is a lingering bastion of national sovereignty in the European Union. While the 25-nation bloc has its own currency, a single market for goods and common antitrust and trade policies, a common European army is a long way off. That leaves each government in charge of its own skies, and EU efforts to encourage cooperation between military and civilian authorities are moving slowly. The price of the patchwork: Airlines pay €7 billion ($9 billion) annually to be guided through the European skies; on a per-flight basis, that averages out to twice the US rate. Eurocontrol, the 37-nation air-safety organization, figures indirect routes cost airlines an extra €1 billion and surplus air-traffic control centers, Europe's 70 centers handle half as many flights as the 22 in the US, cost 1.4 billion more.

„We know we can do it with three to four centers in Europe,” Alexander ter Kuile, secretary general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, said in Brussels. „But that's a political decision linked to national defense. What if there's a war and you're not in charge of your airspace?” A control center in the Dutch city of Maastricht illustrates both the possibilities and limitations of efforts to make the European system more efficient. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany agreed four decades ago to create a joint air-traffic management system run by Eurocontrol. The Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre covers 260,000 square kilometers of airspace above 24,500 feet in the Benelux nations and northwest Germany, some of the busiest airspace in Europe. The center last year handled almost 1.4 million flights with a staff of 614, including 251 controllers, from 28 countries.

„We don't care about political boundaries,” Johannes Zimmer, a German supervisor at Maastricht, said in the control room as he cut a minute off an Air France flight to Paris from Seoul at 38,000 feet by steering it onto a shorter path. „It makes more sense to put up sectors based on traffic flows.” But the Maastricht model is limited and has been slow to catch on. The center has no role controlling the lower airspace or setting fees in the four participating countries, tasks so politically important that the governments have kept them to themselves. Meanwhile, newer projects for creating „functional airspace blocks” between countries have run into snags, and may fail to produce much savings. A planned UK-Ireland block may lead to cost cuts of as little as 1% by 2012. „Airlines would never merge to achieve only a 1% cost reduction,” John Hanlon, secretary general of the European Low Fares Airline Association, said in Brussels. „There has to be much more to be had.”

Issues of safety and liability may limit the scope of such agreements, said Ann Godfrey, an aviation official at the UK Transport Department. Government sensitivity was heightened after 71 people were killed in 2002 when two planes under Swiss air-traffic control collided over southern Germany, she said. A German court ruled in late July that Germany is liable for financial claims brought by Russia's Bashkirian Airlines, which owned the passenger plane that collided with a cargo jet operated by Deutsche Post AG's DHL unit. Two weeks later, a Swiss prosecutor filed involuntary-manslaughter charges against employees of Swiss air-traffic control agency Skyguide. „States have responsibility for their own airspace and the liability that goes with that,” Godfrey said. „The bottom line for air-traffic management is safety.” A decade-old project by eight southern and eastern European nations to create a joint center in Vienna is faltering after losing Italian and Czech backing. Italy faced opposition from domestic controllers and the Czech Republic expanded its own control operations in response to an increase in flights to Prague and through Czech skies.

„We had to move ahead on our own because of the development of traffic,” Petr Materna, director general of Air Navigation Services of the Czech Republic, said last month in Brussels. „The window of opportunity has been shifting.” The airlines continue to push for more vigorous Europe-wide action. Hit by rising fuel costs and the threat of terrorism, the industry in Europe will fail to boost operating profit this year from $755 million in 2005, according to the Association of European Airlines, which represents full-service carriers such as Air France-KLM Group, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways Plc. „We need a European single sky,” Wolfgang Mayrhuber, Lufthansa's CEO and the AEA chairman, said last month in Brussels. The EU is phasing in new rules to encourage members to create more usable airspace blocks. „The flexible use of airspace will bring early and tangible benefits to airlines,” Victor Aguado, Eurocontrol's director general, said in Brussels. „It should come this year, next year and the following year.” Some, like Ryanair's Warren, are skeptical that the changes will go far enough to be meaningful. „There's a lot of high-level political talk about cooperation,” he said. „But in the background, people are doing their own thing and protecting their own patch.” (Bloomberg)