Skift Take

Reforming Europe's fragmented air traffic management systems would help improve the environmental performance of aircraft. But it won't change the fact that they spew out millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year.

IAG CEO Willie Walsh on Wednesday criticized regulators and politicians for their failure to reform Europe’s legacy air traffic management systems, something that could help improve the environmental performance of the industry.

While the European Union ushered in an era of airline liberalization, leading to the rise of low-cost carriers and cheap flights, it has been unable to do the same in other areas.

The continent’s air traffic management systems remain largely fragmented and tied to an earlier era of travel, making cross-border coordination more difficult than it might be.

Walsh — who started his aviation career as a pilot, flying the old Boeing 737-200 — said the route between Dublin and London remains the same today as it did in the late 1970s.

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“I am in an industry that produces CO2 and therefore we will take the criticism. But I will turn to regulators and politicians and say it is a disgrace and a political scandal that we are still today following the same path through the sky as we did when I started flying 40 years ago. And it’s not that the technology is required or investment is required it’s the political will to make the Single European Sky a reality,” he told an audience at the Aviation Sustainability Summit, hosted by trade body Airports Council International on Wednesday.

A more efficient use of airspace is one way the aviation industry — particularly those in Europe — hope to improve the environmental performance of aircraft, alongside measures such as carbon offsetting, sustainable fuel and eventually electric and hybrid aircraft.

Most airlines, unsurprisingly, favor an incentivized approach rather than higher taxes – although the only way to cut aviation’s small but growing contribution to climate change in the short term is to simply fly less.

Reforming Europe’s air traffic management systems would reduce emissions by around 10 percent according to Eamonn Brennan, director general of the intergovernmental organization Eurocontrol who was speaking at the same event as Walsh. Change would enable aircraft to fly more direct routes, saving on fuel.

Brennan suggested that the EU could present new regulations to create a Single European Sky by April this year but the fact that the idea has been talked about since the early 2000s should temper any expectations.

“The ambition is there but the states have to support it,” Brennan said.

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Tags: carbon emissions, climate change, environment, europe, european union, iag, sustainability, Willie Walsh

Photo credit: Willie Walsh speaking in 2014. The outgoing IAG CEO thinks more could be done to improve the environmental performance of aircraft. 376355 / 376355

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