- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BRUSSELS | The European Union and the continent’s air traffic agency want to move fast to abolish Europe’s fragmented national airspaces, which they say exacerbated the unprecedented air travel disruptions that grounded more than 100,000 flights because of volcanic ash last week.

Industry representatives, regulators and analysts all say the most important result of the aftermath meetings starting this week will be a move toward a unified airspace at the expense of nations still seeking to jealously guard the sky as a symbol of national sovereignty.

Unified airspace also would put the skies under one regulatory body instead of leaving decisions to dozens of individual countries — one of the key sources of confusion in the volcanic ash crisis.

The Montreal-based International Air Transport Association (IATA) has enthusiastically endorsed calls for streamlining Europe’s airspace, with the introduction of the so-called Single European Sky concept that would turn it into a seamless system like the one in the United States.

“The volcanic ash crisis that paralyzed European air transport for nearly a week made it crystal clear that the Single European Sky is a critical missing link in Europe’s infrastructure,” said IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani.

It reinforced the argument of the European Commission, which wants to speed up the plan to unify control over all European skyways, because the absence of a single European air traffic regulator made it tough to deal with the crisis.

The disruptions caused by the blanket closure of airspace over Europe as high-altitude wind carried ash from a volcano in southern Iceland have sparked accusations that national regulators overreacted.

Critics pointed out that in contrast to Europe, airlines in North America and much of the Pacific Rim, with its dozens of active volcanos, are provided with detailed meteorological data on the presence of ash and allowed to decide for themselves whether to fly and which routes to take.

“We are looking for a comprehensive European approach in dealing with future occurrences like this, because clearly this one was not handled in best way,” said David Henderson, a spokesman for the Brussels-based Association of European Airlines.

The reassessments will include a crisis-management plan to deal much more aggressively with all aviation-related emergencies, not just those caused by volcanic ash.

“The crisis was well managed, but it was managed as a crisis” — not as a manageable threat, said Brian Flynn, deputy head of operations at Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based air traffic management agency.

A comprehensive crisis management system was needed to be created to deal with future events that may jeopardize international air traffic, he said.

“Volcanic eruptions are very rare in Europe. But we must also be able to deal with other threats to air safety, such as terrorism security alerts, health epidemics, and major social unrest,” Mr. Flynn said.

As a result, Eurocontrol — which includes 38 nations — is assembling a team of experts to analyze the lessons of the airspace closure, the worst disruption to hit international civil aviation since World War II. The experts meet on Tuesday to start collecting and analyzing data, Mr. Flynn said.

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