Disappointment in the Air: Europe’s Airlines Call for Reform

The French have a particular term; “râler”. Informally, the verb is defined as “manifesting one’s discontentment, one’s bad mood through complaints and accusations”. Typically, one will “râle” when things are not going one’s way, but the “râleur’s” complaints and accusations are rarely fully justified.  

As a bilingual writer, I bemoan the fact that the English language has no true equivalent for “râler”. “Moaning” may perhaps be the closest English term. But moaning is a much sadder, and less excited activity than “râler”.  

More to the point, however, “râler” is the perfect term to describe what usually goes on at the annual A4E Summit.  

For those unacquainted, every year Europe’s airline CEOs and leaders unite in Brussels at the A4E Summit to stand on a stage, hand in hand and complain, moan, râle, if you will, against the status quo at the European level. 

These Summits usually last no longer than a day; consist of a series of panels, speeches, and keynotes; and are attended by aviation leaders, various lobbyists, and members of the press.  

Beyond the pre-prepared talking / “râling” points and comically explosive CEOs, this year’s A4E Summit was underscored by an odd sense of genuine disappointment atypical of the everyday “râleur” and A4E Summits of years prior.  

Disappointment in airspace reform which has been decades in the making. Disappointment in the way that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has been introduced and developed. Disappointment in the various taxes imposed on airlines. Disappointment, and even disinterest, in a European Commission which promised a “modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy,” but which seems happy to be soon heading out of the door with work still left to be done.  

Although much can be said about the latent sense of disappointment present throughout the A4E Summit, two topics proved to be most poignant. 


Nearly 20 years ago, the European Union was granted the responsibility of managing, and subsequently improving air traffic management (ATM) across Europe. Provided this competency, the EU has sought to reform ATM across Europe to best cope with year-on-year increases in aviation traffic in a safe, sustainable, and efficient manner. The framework for these reforms has been called the Single European Sky (SES), and two packages of legislation were passed in 2004 and 2009 to support these efforts called SES I and SES II, respectively.  

A major challenge to achieve these reforms, though, is that whilst the EU has some strategic responsibilities regarding Europe’s airspace, air navigation services (air traffic control) is carried out by nearly forty unique air navigation service providers (ANSPs).  

This hodgepodge system means that flying over Europe is a very fragmented and inefficient experience for all those involved. Airlines in particular have complained that the current system results in undue airspace delays and higher costs. 

Europe’s current airspace system is also environmentally inefficient. The European Commission, for one, estimates that “on average each flight is 49 km longer than the direct flight”, whilst A4E states that implementing reforms could result in up to 10% reductions in CO2 emissions. According to The European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, known as EUROCONTROL, flights in Europe burn between 8.6% and 11.2% more fuel than they would if they could fly the most efficient route.

Provided the myriad inefficiencies in the current airspace system, the constant strikes facing ANSPs, and decades-long talk of reform, participants at the A4E Summit seemed exhausted about the topic. 

Commenting on the situation, the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, said that “The Commission has to drive it through; the Commission is a transnational body. The problem is we have a Commission that doesn’t want to take action,”.

Instead of defending the European Union’s record on SES, EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Valean (pictured left) largely echoed the airline’s complaints, expressed regret, and said that they hoped for some progress later this year.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Sustainable Aviation Fuel or SAF is an alternative to the traditional jet fuel, similar to the replacement of CNG to petrol or diesel.

For Europe’s airlines, SAF represents the most attainable, and realistic, method of reducing carbon and non-CO2 emissions with the current fleet of aircraft and before the introduction of hydrogen or electric-powered aircraft.

SAF, however, is problematic in many respects. For one, the production of SAF is extremely limited, the environmental and land-use implications of SAF are hotly debated (Green Mobility Magazine Issue II: pp 69-75; 76-77), and SAF is considered too costly at around 2.5 to 4x more expensive than traditional jet fuel. Moreover, according to Lufthansa’s Carsten Spohr, less than 5% of passengers pay more for SAF-fuelled fares when offered the chance to do so.

Nonetheless, the EU has introduced stringent SAF mandates on all flights departing from the EU starting with 2% in 2025. Moreover, in a bid to increase SAF production to 3 billion gallons by 2023, the US Government has introduced domestic tax credits of up to 1.75 USD per gallon on American-produced SAF as part of the American Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Taken together, it could be said that Europe’s airline bosses feel squeezed. Squeezed between mandates and the limited availability of SAF. Squeezed between high costs and subsidies abroad. And so, the bosses râled and called on Europe to do more.

The ever-so-eloquent Michael O’Leary warned that “until the sector receives the right incentives from decision-makers, SAFs will not be a solution.”

Meanwhile, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr was more careful, and stated that “to decarbonize our industry, politics & aviation must work together. There is a global competition for green investments. Europe must act now to support the expansion of sustainable aviation fuel production and incentivize airlines that use SAF.”

Will anyone do more?

In 2024, European citizens will elect a new Parliament which will, in turn, elect a new Commission and with it, a new political vision for Europe’s transportation sector. Until then, much to the disappointment of Europe’s airlines, it seems likely that calls for a single European sky and support for SAF development will remain unheard.

For the environment, though, the status quo of bickering and inaction on SAF, airspace, and future aviation fuels is suboptimal to say the least.

As a lifelong avgeek convinced of the social and economic benefits of aviation, I strongly believe that the time to râle has passed, and that era of concrete action from airlines, aircraft manufacturers, private finance and governments is upon us.

Certainly, concrete actions, firm orders, and new rules will need to be put in place sooner rather than later if governments seek to continue to reap the social benefits of aviation, if financiers continue to seek a return on their investments, and if airlines want to be in the business of transporting holidaymakers to sunny, rather than scorching, destinations.