EU countries risk sanctions over air traffic control

The creation of a unified European airspace is seriously off track, potentially requiring the European Union to use sanctions to force compliance from member states, European Commissioner for Transport Siim Kallas said in Cyprus on Thursday.

Although the European Union dissolved customs borders and passport controls for much of the continent years ago, control of the skies overhead remains fragmented between nations.

"We have fallen seriously behind in our original ambitions. After more than 10 years, the core problems remain the same," Kallas told a conference in Limassol.

"At this stage, it looks like infringements may well be necessary," Kallas said.

The Single European Sky II package is an EU plan to scale down from 27 national airspaces to nine regional blocks by December, with the ultimate aim of one single air control system.

But countries have been slow to dismantle domestic air traffic monopolies in order to form the regional blocks, and the EU may launch investigations into sanctioning countries who won't make good on the agreement.

The Commission can force member states to follow EU law through a procedure known as infringement, which begins with a formal demand and can escalate into EU court action and fines.

According to the EU's executive, the European Commission, the patchwork control of Europe's airspace leads to more than 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion) in extra costs per year that gets passed on to passengers.

Air traffic control costs make up 6-12 percent of the cost of an airline ticket.

Kallas said the price paid in the EU for using antiquated 1950's-era systems makes the bloc uncompetitive.

The EU was "a long way off the price in the United States...which already controls the same airspace area with more traffic at half the cost," he said.

Full implementation of the EU single sky plan would triple the amount of capacity for flights and improve safety tenfold, the Commission said.

Due to the national control of airspaces, flights also have to take longer and more inefficient routes, adding an extra 42 kilometers to each flight in Europe.

This in turn results in wasted fuel and increased emissions. ($1 = 0.7754 euros)

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)